In France, the trial of six members of a French charity convicted in Chad for trying to kidnap over 100 children finished on Wednesday. Lawyers for defendants in the dock argued that they had been mesmerised by a charismatic cult leader.
Members of the Arche de Zoé (Zoe’s Ark) charity were caught in 2007 trying to take 103 children from Chad into France.
They said they were rescuing orphaned children from Sudan’s western Darfur region, to bring them to France to be adopted.
Other NGOs determined that the children were in fact Chadian and members of the group were sentenced to hard labour in Chad.
They were returned to France on condition that they would face trial but the group’s founder, Eric Breateau, and his partner, Emilie Lelouch, now live in South Africa.
They were tried in absentia here in France on charges of fraud, illegally mediating adoptions and for helping illegal minors enter France.
Four other defendants faced the same charges - Chirstophe Letien, who helped coordinate the operation in France, Doctor Philippe Van Winkelberg, logistician Alain Peligat, and journalist Marie-Agnès Pèleran.
Her lawyer, Stéphane Lataste, told the court Wednesday that the defendants were blinded by good intentions and their belief that they were really saving children from Darfur.
He described the group’s leader, Eric Breteau, as almost a cult leader:
“He is someone who is very persuasive,” Lataste said in his closing arguments. “All those who committed themselves to him really believed in his sincerity.”
The Arche de Zoé had “all the hallmarks of a sect”, Lataste argued.
Breteau “had all the attributes of a guru, faced with people who were completely devoted to him. And unfortunately they found themselves involved with an operation that ended in disaster. In my opinion, this was a sect.”
Breteau and Lelouch themselves never showed up in court during the two-week trial, nor were they represented by lawyers, which allowed the others to put all the blame on them.
Prosecutors on Tuesday asked for two years in prison for Breteau and Lelouch, along with an arrest warrant for the pair, who are currenly in South Africa.
They asked for suspended prison terms for the four others.