A Roma couple were formally charged yesterday with abducting a blond girl found living with them, despite claiming that they had taken her in as an "act of charity" because her natural mother could not look after her.
Greek police released photographs of Christos Salis (39) and Eleftheria Dimopoulou (40) alongside the child, known only as Maria, as a magistrate remanded the pair in custody pending a full investigation.
The photographs showed the stark difference in appearance between Maria and the couple that raised police suspicions during last week's raid for weapons and drugs at the ramshackle settlement in Farsala, 200 miles north of Athens, where they lived. A DNA test confirmed that Maria, referred to as the "blonde angel" by the Greek media, was no relation to the pair, leading to an international effort to find her true identity.
In a closed hearing yesterday in Larissa, the capital of Thessaly province, the couple told a judge that they had taken the girl in when she was a few weeks old after she was brought to them by a third party who begged them to look after her.
They denied snatching her, and instead asked the court to trace a Bulgarian man who they claimed had helped the child's mother find a family to care for her. They told the court that their taking in the child had been an "act of charity".
"There has been no kidnapping, no robbery, no trafficking," Constantinos Katsavos, one of the lawyers representing Mr Salis, said after the hearing.
"It was an adoption that was not exactly legal, but it took place with the mother's consent."
Mr Salis provided the court with the name of the "Bulgarian Roma middleman" and his mobile phone number and urged the court to trace him so he could confirm the story.
He also said that he could identify the mother, whom he described as a Bulgarian Roma speaker, and that she would confirm her consent if she could be found.
The couple appeared separately at the hearing, which lasted for several hours.
Mr Salis, who was the first to be questioned by the judge, described how "at first they were reluctant to take her in, but it seemed no one wanted the child, so they said they would care for her," a judicial source said.
Despite their version of events, the couple were remanded in custody after being charged with child abduction.
They were also charged with procuring false documentation. The charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years.
Police discovered that Ms Dimopoulou had two different identification documents and that she had registered 14 children in three different municipalities. Six of the children she claimed to be her own had their births registered within less than 10 months of each other.
The charity Smile of the Child, which is caring for Maria, who speaks the Roma dialect and a smattering of Greek, disclosed yesterday that medical tests had shown she was aged between five and six years old and was not four years old, as claimed by Mr Salis and Ms Dimopoulou.
It is one of several discrepancies that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the story told by the couple.
When first arrested, the pair gave various and contradictory accounts as to how Maria came to be in their care.
The case has raised questions about whether the child may have been stolen to order, or if the couple formed part of a wider child-trafficking ring.
Outside the courthouse, at least five dozen members of the Roma community where the arrests were made gathered in an apparent show of support for Mr Salis and Ms Dimopoulou.
Among them were several barefoot children and the crowds were openly hostile when approached by the media claiming that they were being stigmatised unfairly. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
BY FIONA GOVAN AND KOSTAS KALLERGIS