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Chad Pardons French Aid Workers

Six French aid workers convicted of kidnapping 103 Chadian children were freed from a prison in France after receiving a pardon from Chad's President Idriss Deby.

Zoe's Ark aid workers in hand-cuffs

The aid workers are seen here in October, just after their arrest

The Chadian president issued a decree on Monday, March 31, effectively pardoning the six staff members of the aid group Zoe's Ark. They were then released from prisons throughout France where they had been serving an eight-year sentence.

"I will try to be cleared one day," Zoe's Ark member Dominique Aubry told reporters outside of the prison in Caen, France.

Gilbert Collard, a lawyer representing two of the released prisoners, said they would soon speak about the affair.

"They will be able to defend themselves as they were not able to defend themselves up to now," he told Reuters news service.

Group repatriated in France

The French citizens had been convicted in a Chadian court late last year and sentenced to eight years hard labor and heavy fines after trying to put a group of children on a plane to Europe. They maintained that the children were orphaned war refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan, which neighbors Chad.

Children in a Chadian orphanage that Zoe's Ark staff attempted to smuggle out of the country

The Chadian children were to be put up for adoption in Europe

However, UN and Chadian officials determined that most of the children had at least one living parent and came from Chadian border villages.

After the aid workers' conviction in December, they were repatriated and extradited to France when President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened. Since France does not sentence criminals to hard labor, the sentence was relegated to time in prison.

Fines, charges still loom

Four of the now freed workers also face investigation in France for possible breach of French law. The fines levied by the Chadian court, which amount to 6.3 million euros ($9.8 million), are still being haggled over, as Chad's government said they were not annulled by the pardon.

The case had been a source of tension between France and its former colony Chad, particularly as France was set to head up a major EU peacekeeping mission in the nearby region of Darfur.

France's support of Deby in counteracting a rebel attack on the capital city of N'Djamena in February reportedly helped pave the way for the pardon.

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