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Done Deal

Diana FongJanuary 15, 2008

A French court has adapted the sentence of aid workers convicted of child trafficking in Chad. Political deals behind closed doors, and not due process, made their return home possible in the first place, experts say.

Poster of aid organization Zoe's Ark on top of map of Africa
Whether Zoe's Ark aid workers were part of an adoption scam is disputed in FranceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

On Monday, Jan. 14, six French aid workers convicted of kidnapping 103 children in the central African country of Chad went before a court in the Paris suburb of Creteil.

However, their punishment had already been decided last December: Chad judges sentenced the charity workers to eight years of forced labor and a collective fine of 6.3 million euros ($9.2 million) on charges of child trafficking for Zoe's Ark, a humanitarian aid organization.

Due to the intervention of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the group was repatriated to France two days after the Chadian sentence was meted out.

Since France has the largest contingent in a multilateral peacekeeping operation in eastern Chad, near the Sudanese border ,and even saved Chadian President Idriss Deby's regime from being overthrown by rebels, Sarkozy was able to exercise some political leverage on behalf of the aid workers, said Antoine Comte, a French expert on extradition and criminal law.

"The repatriation was a done political deal between two heads of state that was carried out behind closed doors and had nothing to do with due process," he said.

French translation

Four French aid workers of Zoe's Ark
There will be no retrial of the repatriated aid workersImage: AP

But French judges were asked to adapt the prison sentence in accordance with the terms of a 1976 bilateral accord between France and Chad, a former French colony. Translating the Chadian sentence into French domestic legislation is not without its problems though, since France does not condemn its prisoners to forced labor. So the Creteil prosecutor, Jean-Jacques Bosc, sought eight years imprisonment instead.

"This case is not about a retrial on French territory, which would be a violation of international principles," Bosc said in a statement to journalists.

The press office of the French justice ministry had also emphasized that the aid workers were not extradited home to stand trial, but were convicted criminals who were simply repatriated to serve out a foreign prison sentence in their own country.

Getting off lightly?

Group of African children in eastern Chad city of Abeche
The children were not injured war orphans from DarfurImage: AP

Still, the aid workers will get off more lightly in France than in Africa, other countries in the developing world, according to extradition experts.

"Compared to Europe, the prison conditions in Africa, generally speaking, are horrendous," said John R.W.D. Jones, an extradition and war crimes lawyer at Doughty Street Chambers in London. "Beating up prisoners is considered one of the perks of a prison guard's job, the food is atrocious, and the conditions violate international human rights conventions."

France may try to translate the forced labor provision of the Chadian law into harsher conditions by denying the prisoners home leave and library or exercise privileges enjoyed by others, added Jones.

But the problem is that the prisoners may be able to file a complaint with the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg on the grounds that they are being denied the right to equal treatment relative to the rest of the incarcerated population, he explained.

A question of politics

Nicolas Sarkozy
Sarkozy was the driving force behind the deal, Comte saysImage: AP

Once back on French soil, how the prisoners are treated is no longer a legal, but a political or diplomatic issue with Chad, which has no legal recourse if the prisoners are treated too well.

"In all likelihood, the Chadians will not necessarily want assurances that the aid workers are suffering enough in prison, but if it became public that the prisoners were being treated very leniently, that would be a humiliation for Chad," Jones said. "How this affair is handled may be more about diplomatic face-saving than about the treatment of individuals."

Legal expert Comte meanwhile said that the French president should have taken an altogether different route.

"Instead of negotiating with an African dictator, Sarkozy should have used French influence to push Chad into pursuing a democratic legal process in the first place," he said.