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Charity workers go on trial in France for fraud

War-orphaned children sit in cardboard boxes at the Kizito orphanage in Bunia in northeastern Congo February 24, 2009.

Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

A group of former French charity workers convicted of abducting African children in Chad only to be later pardoned went on trial in Paris on Monday, charged with defrauding French families who had hoped to adopt the youngsters.

Zoe's Ark, a non-profit group, was accused of trying to fly 103 children out of Chad to France illegally and six of its members were convicted and jailed in 2007 in a case that sparked angry protests in the Central African country.

They were returned to France to serve out their sentences, but were freed in March, 2008, after Chad's President, Idriss Deby, pardoned them.

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Four of the six have now gone on trial in Paris, along with a journalist and a member of the group who never left France.

They face up to 10 years in prison and 750,000 euros ($975,400) each in fines for fraud, for being an illegal intermediary in an adoption and for aiding foreign minors to stay illegally in France.

The trial, which is expected to last until mid-December, relates to the charity's activities in France before its workers left for Chad. More than 350 French families were promised a child from Sudan's conflict-ridden Darfur region and paid up to several thousand euros each in the expectation of adopting.

About 30 of those potential foster parents are civil parties in the case. Their lawyer, Eric Dupond-Moretti, told reporters at the court his clients were duped.

"Everything was done so that these families believed that a child was on its way, and an adoption, based on incompetence at best, and ignorance at worst," Mr. Dupond-Moretti said.

The charity's members testified at the time that they believed they had been rescuing war orphans from Darfur, which borders Chad.

But United Nations and Chadian officials said the children, aged from 1 to 10, came from the Chad-Sudan border area and had at least one living parent who had been persuaded to give up their offspring in exchange for promises of education.

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A police investigation also found that Zoe's Ark had paid village leaders to deliver children to centres from which they were to be evacuated.

The trial begins ahead of a planned visit to France on Wednesday by Mr. Deby, who will meet French President François Hollande. Non-governmental organizations have said they will protest during his visit over the slow democratic-reform process and over alleged human-rights abuses in the oil-producing nation.

Notably absent on the trial's opening day were the leaders of Zoe's Ark: Eric Breteau, its president, and his companion, Emilie Lelouch, who live in South Africa and have said they will not attend. The court has said it will judge them in absentia.

Zoe's Ark was first investigated by French police in 2007 for posting notices on the Internet about adoptions from Sudan. Such inter-country adoptions were, and still are, illegal.

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