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Zoe's Ark sentences shock France

French aid workers were sentenced to eight years hard labor and $9 million Wednesday after being convicted for kidnapping children in the African nation of Chad.

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– The news that six French amateur humanitarians convicted of attempting to kidnap 103 children from the African nation of Chad were sentenced to eight years hard labor and $9 million has been received in France with shock mixed with a realism that the group would be punished.

The main question now is whether Chad will extradite the six members of the Zoe's Ark charity back to France, as French authorities have requested.

The case captured world attention when Chadian police arrested 12 Europeans this fall near a local Chad airport – as they prepared to fly the children, supposedly Sudanese orphans from Darfur, to Europe.

Many children later turned out to have parents and to be from villages in neighboring Chad – suggesting the French volunteers may have been duped by local middlemen.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the case played powerfully as an instance of white colonial arrogance; in France, it was seen as a misguided effort to save lives; and among humanitarian groups it has been seen as the kind of mission that puts experienced, professional aid workers at risk.

In Paris, the verdict in Chad after a four-day trial brought condemnation of the Chadian judicial system, and charges of a show trial, by lawyers, family members, and some ordinary French.

"It's a scandalous judicial error," said one of the lawyers for Zoe's Ark, Gilbert Collard, adding that the trial was conducted as a "pretext" by Chadian authorities to suggest that "justice exists in Chad when it doesn't."

"I think Zoe's Ark deserved some punishment, but eight years hard labor is too much," says Tafiq, a Frenchman of Moroccan extraction who works in a Paris cafe. "Nine million dollars and hard labor? That would never happen here."

French bloggers, however, were critical and caustic of the group, many calling them "amateurs."

The group may be extradited to France

Under a 1976 extradition treaty between Chad and France, the six may be extradited to serve their sentence in France, though "hard labor" has been banned in French prisons. A Thursday editorial in the daily Libération suggested the harsh sentence for the Ark members sets up the possibility of extradition, since it answers public outcry in Chad over a case presented luridly in local media as one of former colonialists bent on exploiting African peoples. Before the trial, Chadian President Idriss Deby charged Zoe's Ark with crimes ranging from pedophilia to organ trafficking.

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