N'DJAMENA, CHAD — Six French aid workers were sentenced to eight years of hard labor after a court in Chad found them guilty Wednesday of trying to kidnap 103 children from the African country.
France, while calling the verdict a "sovereign decision," said it would ask Chad to abide by a 1976 accord that would allow the six to be transferred home to serve their sentences.
The court in the capital, N'Djamena, handed down the sentence on the fourth day of the trial of the six members of the French humanitarian group Zoe's Ark. They were arrested in October for trying to fly the children, ages 1 to 10, to Europe.
The court also ordered them to pay compensatory damages of $9 million.
The four men and two women were escorted from the courtroom through a jostling mob of journalists. Defense lawyers and relatives of the six reacted with dismay and called on France to work for a solution with Chad that would enable them to be returned home.
Chad's government had faced heavy popular pressure to punish the Zoe's Ark members. But there is widespread expectation of a diplomatic deal to send them quickly back to France, either through the judicial accord or a pardon granted by Chadian President Idriss Deby. None of these options were mentioned by the court.
France is an ally of Deby and has a military contingent stationed in the landlocked former French colony.
A Chadian and a Sudanese accused of acting as accomplices to the Zoe's Ark group were sentenced to four years in jail. Two other Chadians were acquitted.
The French denied abduction and fraud charges filed against them. They testified that they believed the children were orphans from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region whom they intended to give to European families for foster care. They said international law justified the humanitarian operation.
Chad's government has said the six did not have permission to take the children out of the country. Prosecutors said the group duped parents in eastern Chad into handing over their children with promises of schooling.
The French have blamed local intermediaries for misleading them over the identity of the children. Chadian and U.N. officials said most of the children were not orphans but came from families in Chad on its eastern border with Darfur.