DAKAR, Senegal Six French aid workers were sentenced Wednesday by a court in Chad to eight years of hard labor for trying to take to Europe 103 children who they claimed were orphans of the conflict in Darfur.
The verdict came after four days of closely watched testimony in Chad's capital, Ndjamena. The case enraged many Chadians and embarrassed France just as a European peacekeeping force made up largely of French troops was to begin deployment in the region. The episode brought condemnation across Africa.
Prosecutors portrayed the aid workers as remorseless kidnappers bent on exploiting Chad's children. But the workers claimed they were humanitarians acting within the confines of international law, trying to save children from imminent harm.
Diplomats and analysts widely expect that the French workers will be allowed to return to France. Though French officials called the verdict a sovereign decision, they said they would ask Chad to allow the workers to serve their sentences in France, news agencies reported.
Three Chadians and a Sudanese working with the aid group, Zoe's Ark, were also found guilty.
The workers claimed they had been rescuing child refugees from Darfur, but it turned out the children were for the most part neither Sudanese nor orphans.
This year, Zoe's Ark posted an emotional appeal on its Web site claiming that a child dies in Darfur every five minutes and calling upon families in Europe to help the organization take the children to Europe for temporary refuge. The group said it planned to rescue 10,000 orphans. Many donated money to help cover the costs of chartered planes.
In October, Chadian officials stopped workers from the group as they hustled dozens of children, some of them in bandages and attached to intravenous drips, onto a plane in eastern Chad. The aid workers were charged with attempted kidnapping.
The bandages and bloodstains turned out to be a ruse. The group's supporters have argued that local helpers misled the workers about the children's status, but video images released by a journalist who had traveled with the aid workers showed them putting the fake bandages on the children.
The children were turned over to the Red Cross and found to be in relatively good health. Interviews with those old enough to speak showed that virtually all of them were Chadian, not Sudanese, and had been living with adult relatives they considered to be their parents.
The case touched off anti-French riots in Chad, a former French colony with close ties to Paris. In street demonstrations, Chadians demanded the death penalty.
French troops occupy two bases in Chad, and French troops are expected to make up a large portion of a European Union peacekeeping force aimed at stabilizing Chad and the Central African Republic, which have been destabilized by the conflict in Darfur and by rebellions of their own.
President Nicholas Sarkozy of France flew to Chad to try to defuse tensions, and eventually the aid workers were allowed to leave on condition they returned for the trial