France convicts Roma families of forcing children to rob

NANCY, France (AFP) - A French court on Friday convicted 26 members of three Croatian Roma families of forcing children to carry out more than 100 robberies in European countries.

The court in the eastern city of Nancy convicted all but one of the 27 accused, sentencing them to between two and eight years in prison.

Police had testified during the trial that the gang traded in women and used children like conscripts in a criminal army.

Judges did not however follow prosecutors' recommendations for some of the accused to face the maximum sentence of 10 years.

The court also dismissed charges of human trafficking against all but one of the accused, despite testimony that brides were being bought then renounced when they did not bring in enough money to the gang.

"The judges dismissed the shameful charges of human trafficking and we welcome this decision to prevent stigmatisation," said one of the defendants' lawyers, Mr Alain Behr.

The defence had contested the people trafficking charges, saying the financial transactions were part of traditional dowry arrangements.

The case was heard against the tense background of a debate in France over the treatment of Roma migrants from eastern Europe.

Police had testified at the trial that the group was behind more than 100 robberies carried out in 2011 alone in France and neighbouring parts of Belgium and Germany.

Most of the thefts were carried out by children as young as 10.

The evidence against the families was based on the tapped phone calls of 120 suspects which police said had revealed a Mafia-style structure in which clan chiefs were supported by a network of subordinate captains and lieutenants, who in turn ran the children at the bottom of the pyramid.

The suspected head of the operation - a 66-year-old woman - is to be tried separately.

Defence lawyers had questioned whether their clients could expect a fair trial in light of the atmosphere of hostility towards Roma amid ongoing controversy over a claim by Interior Minister Manuel Valls that most of them will never assimilate into French society and should be deported.