Six French aid workers from the group Zoe's Ark have gone on trial in Chad. The six are accused of the attempted kidnapping of 103 children who were discovered by authorities as they were being flown to Europe for possible adoption. Jade Heilmann reports for VOA from our West, Central Africa bureau in Dakar.
The six aid workers face charges of abduction and fraud, and could be given up to 20 years of forced labor if convicted. The group was arrested in the eastern Chadian city of Abéché on October 25 while preparing to board the children on a plane to France.
A lawyer representing the defendants, who have been on a hunger strike, says his clients are nervous about the trial.
The lawyer, Abdou Lamian, says he is confident about his defense, but says anyone in their situation would be worried. He says they are far from their country and their families, and their future is uncertain. Three Chadians and a Sudanese national accused of complicity will also stand trial.
The French aid group continues to deny the charges. They say the children were presented to them as orphans from the volatile Darfur region.
But after an international investigation, most of the children have been established to be from families or have at least one guardian. Most are from Chadian villages along the Sudanese border.
Sixty-three of the Chadian children were brought to Zoe's Ark by Souleïmane Ibrahim Adam, who is facing charges of complicity.
Defense lawyer Lamian explains, Adam was chosen because they believed him to be Sudanese and therefore never questioned whether he would bring back Sudanese or Chadian children.
Adam's nationality has been disputed between Chad and Sudan.
Three journalists and seven crew members were also arrested at the time, but have since been released and cleared of charges in Chad.
Christophe Letien, spokesperson for Zoe's Ark, says he hopes they will be cleared of all suspicions. He says he hopes the trial will prove the operation was carried out to save children from Darfur, and nothing else.
A Franco-Chadian agreement signed in 1976 could allow the group to serve its sentence in France. The French Government is waiting to hear the court's decision before commenting on the possibility of such a deal.
Three Chadian officials from border town of Tiné, are also standing trial for complicity in the case.