independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Greek police release mugshots of Roma couple accused of kidnapping mystery girl

GREEK police have released the first pictures of a Roma couple accused of kidnapping a young girl, whose identity remains a mystery.

The little girl who sparked worldwide interest after being found living with the Roma couple accused of kidnapping her is older than initially thought, according to helpers.

The "Smile of the Child" charity, which is caring for the child, known as Maria until her biological parents are found, says she is aged around five or six, instead of four.

The charity director said that the revision follows dental and other examinations done at a hospital where the girl is undergoing health checks.

She was found in a Gypsy settlement near Farsala in central Greece during a police raid looking for drugs, firearms and fugitives. The blonde, blue-eyed child was strikingly unlike the couple she lived with, which triggered the curiosity of prosecutor Christina Fasoula, who had accompanied the police.

A DNA test proved that she was not related to the Gypsy couple she was living with. Police say the couple initially claimed her as their own.

The 39-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman have appeared before an investigating judge in Larissa, near Farsala, to face criminal charges of child abduction, which carries a maximum ten-year prison sentence.

Both denied the charges last week, claiming instead to have adopted the child while she was just days old. A defence lawyer said they were motivated by charity, after being approached by an intermediary for a destitute foreign mother who reportedly could not afford to raise the child.

They have also been charged with illegally obtaining official documents such as birth records.

Police allege the woman claimed to have given birth to six children in less than 10 months, while 10 of the 14 children the couple had registered as their own are unaccounted for.

The man also faces separate charges, together with other people from the settlement, for allegedly possessing an illegal firearm and drug-related offences.

Roma, a poor people in a country devastated by an economic crisis, try to make a living on the outskirts of Farsala by selling fruits, carpets, blankets, baskets and shoes. They are already stereotyped by some in Greece and elsewhere in Europe as social outcasts, thieves and beggars - and now fear they will be stigmatised as child traffickers as well.

The president of the local Roma community, Babis Dimitriou, hopes there is no backlash against the 2,000 Roma living in the community.

The case "doesn't reflect on all of us," he said yesterday.

But regional police chief Lt Gen Vassilis Halatsis said the authorities have found "dozens" of child trafficking cases involving Bulgarian Roma in Greece.

"We know these cases exist, but they involve Bulgarians, not Greeks like us. There are no transactions involving children here," he insists, adding that the 40-year-old woman, who had registered Maria as her own child, "cared for her even better than for her own children".

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