Roma couple say girl was given up willingly

A ROMA couple accused of abducting a mystery four-year-old girl claimed yesterday that her biological mother had willingly given her to them as a baby.

"Maria", with the adults she was living with. Picture: Contributed
"Maria", with the adults she was living with. Picture: Contributed

The discovery of the girl, known as Maria, has prompted thousands of calls with leads from across the world as authorities try to track down her parents, as DNA tests have shown she was not born to the couple.

Last night, Greek police released photographs of the couple. The 39-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman, identified as Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, were detained yesterday on charges of abduction and document fraud following their arrest last week.

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The couple were arrested after police, who raided a Roma camp in central Greece last week in search of drugs and weapons, found the girl with pale skin and blue eyes who did not resemble the family she was living with. But yesterday they denied they had snatched the child and say they took her under their care after her mother handed the girl to them shortly after giving birth.

“It was an adoption that was not exactly legal, but took place with the mother’s consent,” Constantinos Katsavos, one of the lawyers representing Salis, told reporters, adding that is what the couple testified in court.

The couple were held in custody pending trial after responding to charges of abduction and procuring false documents, as more than a dozen policemen stood guard outside.

So far, more than 5,000 people, from Texas to Sweden, have phoned the charity looking after Maria to offer clues or in search of their missing children.

Based on her characteristics, police believe Maria, who has spoken just a few words in Greek and Roma dialect, is eastern or northern European.

At the weekend, the mother of Ben Needham, who disappeared when he was a toddler, said she hoped the discovery might offer new leads in his abduction.

Kerry Needham’s son was 21 months old when he was taken from his grandparents’ home on the island of Kos in Greece in 1991. Ms Needham she said was “delighted” at the news that the blonde girl has been discovered in the country where Ben was last seen.

The discovery has also buoyed the hopes of Madeleine McCann’s parents. The Leicestershire girl, then three, vanished from a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal, in 2007, as her parents dined with friends in a nearby tapas restaurant.

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Clarence Mitchell, a spokesman for her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, said Maria had renewed their hope that Madeleine would also be found.

The case has raised questions about whether children were being stolen to order and whether the couple were part of a wider child-trafficking ring.

In the bustling square outside the court in the city of Larissa, where Salis and Dimopoulou faced magistrates yesterday, members of the Roma community gathered to show their support and said they were being unfairly stigmatised.

“They are completely innocent. These are all fairy tales and we’re going to prove it to society,” Babis Dimitriou, the head of the local Roma community, said.

“They accuse the Roma of everything – of stealing, of snatching kids. Do these things only happen among our race? This is a huge insult for us.”

Police have found papers suggesting the couple had up to 14 children, but six were registered as having been born within less than ten months.

“It’s unfair,” a Roma woman who gave her name as Kyriaki said outside the court on hearing the decision to hold the couple in custody. “She raised this child since she was a baby.”

McCann parallels

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The story has resonated particularly in Britain, where parallels have been made with missing girl Madeleine McCann, who disappeared at age three from a Portuguese resort six years ago. The mother of Ben Needham, a British boy missing in Greece since 1991, said she was thrilled by the news of the mystery girl’s recovery. Her toddler was 21 months old when he vanished on the island of Kos.

The girl was found last week in a Gypsy, or Roma, settlement near Farsala in central Greece as police searched for drugs, firearms and fugitives. The blond, blue-eyed child was strikingly unlike the couple she lived with and a later DNA test showed she was not their child.

A 39-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman appeared Monday before an investigating judge in Larissa, near Farsala, to face criminal charges of child abduction, which carries a maximum ten-year prison sentence. Police named them as Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou or Selini Sali - as the woman had two separate sets of identity papers.

Both have denied the charges, last week claiming they adopted the child while she was just days old. A defense lawyer said they were motivated by charity after being approached by an intermediary for a destitute foreign mother.

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

Roma fear stereotyping

Police allege the Roma 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.

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It is unclear whether the children exist or were made up to milk the Greek welfare system. Police say the two suspects received about 2,500 euros ($3,420) a month in subsidies from three different cities.

The man also faces separate charges for allegedly possessing an illegal firearm and drug-related offences.

Greece’s Roma community has for centuries been exposed to poverty and discrimination. According to the London-based Minority Rights Group, some 80 percent of Greece’s 300,000 Roma are illiterate. They are already stereotyped by some in Greece and elsewhere as social outcasts, thieves and beggars - and now they fear they will be stigmatized as child traffickers as well.

The case “doesn’t reflect on all of us,” Babis Dimitriou, president of the local Roma community, said.

Police have raided dozens of Gypsy settlements across Greece in the last few weeks, including four more camps Monday in Athens and Thessaloniki.