Chad President Prepared to Pardon Six French Aid Workers Jailed for Kidnapping Orphans

Chadian President Idriss Deby said Thursday he was "ready to pardon" six French aid workers convicted in December of trying to kidnap 103 children they said were orphans from Darfur.

Deby, speaking on Europe-1 radio, said he could only issue a pardon on a demand from France but that "I am ready to pardon" the six sentenced to eight years of hard labor by a Chad court.

The six were returned to France and the sentence was converted last month to eight years in prison by a French court.

The case of the six, members of small French aid group Zoe's Ark, aroused heated reaction at the time in Chad, making any pardon by Deby almost unthinkable. However, over the past week, attention has been elsewhere, with Deby's government fighting back rebels who entered the capital before being pushed back.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that France, which has more than 1,500 troops in the former colony, would help Deby if need be. The Chadian leader said in the radio interview that French support had been limited to "surveying the frontier at Adre" with overflights by Mirage fighter jets. Adre is a border town with Sudan, and Deby claims rebels are crossing into Chad from Sudan.

The changed situation apparently makes an eventual pardon for the six French easier.

The Zoe's Ark members "did what they did. The Chadian children did not leave, they are with their parents. We were able to avoid the worst," Deby said, adding, "What does it bring me to have five, six French people in prison?"

On Jan. 28, a French court converted the sentences of eight years at hard labor into eight years in prison. They had been transferred to France under a 1976 judicial accord between the two countries.

The Creteil court did not retry the case, ruling that the Chadian court's sentence was valid in France and that there was no proof of a "flagrant denial of justice."

Defense lawyer Gilbert Collard has called on the French president to intervene and obtain a presidential pardon from Deby.

The six French were arrested in October by Chadian authorities as they sought to send 103 children on a plane to France. The group's members insisted they were driven by compassion to help orphans in Sudan's conflict-wracked Darfur region, which borders Chad.

But investigations showed most of the children had at least one parent or close adult relative.