In October 2007 Chadian police arrested 17 members of French NGO l’Arche de Zoé at Abéché airport, in eastern Chad, in the company of 103 children wearing bandages and plasters, although they were not injured.
The group claimed that the children were orphans from Darfur, the wartorn region in southern Sudan that borders on Chad, but most of them turned out to be Chadian and hardly any were actually orphans.
Nine French citizens were charged with kidnapping minors and fraud, while seven Spaniards charged with complicity but later released along with the pilot, a Belgian, and some journalists accompanying them.
Six of the French were later sentenced to eight years’ forced labour and ordered to pay 6.3 million euros to the children’s families but then repatriated to France where they were to serve their sentences.
In march 2008 Chadian President Idriss Déby pardoned them, leading to their release in France.
This week’s trial concerns charges made in France.
Six Arche de Zoé members are accused of illegal involvement in adoption procedures, attempting to help minors enter France illegally and fraud and could face 10 years in prison and/or heavy fines.
About 20 of the 250 families who were expecting to adopt Darfur refugee children are plaintiffs.
The accused are the NGO’s chairman Eric Breteau, his partner Emilie Lelouch, the group’s doctor Philippe Van Winkelberg, logistics organiser Alain Péligat, journalist Agnès Peleran and Christophe Letien, an Arche de Zoé member who stayed in France at the time of the operation and is held to have been the “de facto treasurer” by the prosecution.
Breteau and Lelouch announced before the trial that they would not appear and would not be represented by lawyers.
They are in South Africa, where Breteau, who is on probation, runs a guest house while Lelouch is reported to have set up a circus with local performers.
Organisers told families that they could save “at least 1,000” Darfur orphans, one of the plaintiffs, Citane Ferrer, told RFI.
After they had contacted the organisation they were assured that there was no legal obstacle for adoption, she claims, and were invited to a meeting where a film was shown.
“They did all they could to attract us, to get us really involved in the project,” she says. “In the matter of a few months it’s as if they had robbed us of our humanity, they played so much on our humane feelings.”
Breteau continued to insist that the children were orphans from Darfur when released from prison in 2008.
He and Lelouch claim that no-one, including the courts, has listened to their version of the story and that they are convinced that the present trial would be no different.