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Abduction Highlights Child Custody Travails PDF Print E-mail
(1 Vote)
Written by Anna Malpas   
Jean-paul Pelissier / Reuters
Jean-Michel Andre kissing Elise, 3, at a news conference in Marseille this week. He has accused Elise's Russian mother of organizing her kidnapping.

A Hungarian court on Wednesday ordered a Russian woman to be extradited to France, where she faces charges of kidnapping her young daughter from her ex-husband -- the latest turn in a high-profile parental battle that has stretched across the continent.

The court in Budapest ruled that Irina Belenkaya should be handed over to French authorities within 40 days, the Russian Embassy in Budapest said, Interfax reported.

She is to be held in a detention facility pending her extradition, the embassy said.

The case of 3-year-old Elise Andre, who has been caught in a brutal dispute between her Russian mother and French father, highlights the lack of transnational agreements about custody of children with dual citizenship when their parents' marriages break up, experts said.

"We see a terrible gap in international law," said Boris Altshuler, head of the organization Child's Right and an adviser to the State Duma's Family, Women and Children Committee. "There is no regulation on this."

Elise has been at the center of a tug-of-war custody dispute in which one of her parents has snatched her from the other on three separate occasions.

French police say Belenkaya was involved in the assault last month of her former husband, Frenchman Jean-Michel Andre, and the subsequent kidnapping of their daughter. Several men attacked Andre as he was walking with his daughter in the southern French town of Arles, after which the girl was spirited away.

Acting on an Interpol warrant, Hungarian police detained Belenkaya on Sunday as she was trying to cross the border into Ukraine with her daughter.

In September, Andre came to Russia and took Elise away from her nanny while they were walking in Moscow and brought the girl back to France. The Investigative Committee said this week that it is investigating Andre on suspicion of abducting his daughter.

The girl is currently with her father in France.

When Belenkaya and Andre, an oceanographer, divorced in 2007, a French court gave the father custody and Belenkaya visiting rights. She secretly took the child back to Russia, however.

While in Russia, Belenkaya received custody from a Russian court -- despite the French court's decision.

Meanwhile, Andre got French authorities to issue an international order for her arrest.

Karoly Arvai / Reuters

Belenkaya waiting Wednesday for her extradition trial to begin in Budapest.

Belenkaya faces charges in France of kidnapping a minor and of taking part in a premeditated violent attack, French media reported.

Public Chamber member Alexander Sokolov flew to France on Wednesday morning to discuss the case with law enforcement authorities. Speaking by telephone from France, Sokolov told The Moscow Times that he planned to travel to Strasbourg and Paris to speak with Council of Europe officials and Russia's ambassador to France.

"The question of mixed marriages isn't resolved even between France and Germany, and therefore we need to solve this problem in principle so that there aren't any more such tragedies," Sokolov said.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said Tuesday that France would favor an approach that would, "in concert with the Russian and French authorities, yield a solution in the best interests of the child," France 24 television reported on its web site.

Hours before Wednesday's court ruling, Sokolov said the Public Chamber would provide Belenkaya with legal assistance and would attempt to negotiate with the father should she be extradited. "I've talked to [prominent lawyer and Public Chamber member Anatoly] Kucherena, and he's ready to take part."

Kucherena told a news conference in Moscow on Wednesday that he would fly to Budapest and work with Belenkaya's lawyer, Robert Fridman, to present evidence in order to prevent her extradition, Interfax reported.

The case is complicated by the fact that under Russian law, Belenkaya committed no criminal offense by taking her child since a Russian court granted her custody.

"Irina Belenkaya behaved according to the decision of the Russian court," Altshuler said.

Such abductions "happen all the time," said Yekaterina Kalashnikova, a lawyer who specializes in international divorces, adding that many of the cases are a result of the circumstances of Russian wives and the specifics of Russian law.

Russian women who marry foreigners and move abroad are often "mail-order brides" who have poor language skills and little financial independence, Kalashnikova told The Moscow Times by telephone from London.

"They call Russian lawyers, and the Russian lawyer tells them, 'If you hate this situation so much, if you find yourself on Russian territory, basically there's no [legal] responsibility for your actions. There's no responsibility for kidnapping the child if it's your child,'" Kalashnikova said.

Such women are often unaware that they run the risk of criminal charges abroad, she said.

"The father is also in a desperate situation, because they know the situation in Russia, that the chances of seeing the child are quite limited," Kalashnikova said.

Hence, some couples "kidnap" their child from each other, as in the case of Elise Andre. "I did have cases where the children were abducted in turn, first by the father and then by the mother," Kalashnikova said. "The person who suffers the most is the child, of course."

More than half of marriages in Russia end in divorce. In 2007 there were 1.26 million marriages and 685,900 divorces, according to the State Statistics Agency.

"As a rule, the mother has more chance of getting custody of a child, irrespective of her age and other factors," Kalashnikova said. If the child is aged 10 and over, the judge will give priority to his or her wishes, however.


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