Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Greek Abduction Case Highlights Roma Tensions


Greek Abduction Case Highlights Roma Tensions

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ATHENS — A Roma couple were ordered jailed on Monday over the alleged abduction of a child who was found during a police raid on an encampment in central Greece last week. The case has fueled speculation about human trafficking and illegal adoption rackets, and heightened scrutiny of Roma populations across Europe.
Greek Police, via Reuters
Eleftheria Dimopoulou, left, and Christos Salis, who are facing charges of abduction, insisted they adopted a child who was found during a police raid on an encampment.


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The couple, identified by the police as Christos Salis, 39, and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, insisted during five hours of testimony that they adopted the child from a Bulgarian woman. Ms. Dimopoulou had a second identification card giving her name as Selini Sali with a different date and place of birth. They will stand trial on charges of abducting a minor and forging official documents.
The Greek police have appealed for Interpol’s help in tracing the girl’s biological parents. The girl, who has been nicknamed Maria and is thought to be about 5 or 6 years old, was spotted by the Greek police last Wednesday during a search for drugs and weapons at a Roma camp in Farsala, near the city of Larissa in central Greece.
The case comes amid an increasingly acrimonious debate in Europe over how to integrate the Roma, a nomadic people who came to the Continent centuries ago from India, and who are also widely known as Gypsies.
In France, President Fran├žois Hollande intervened over the weekend after a 15-year-old Roma girl was removed from a school bus and expelled to Kosovo, along with her parents and five siblings who had been living illegally in France for five years. After the case led to protests by student groups across the country, Mr. Hollande said that the girl, Leonarda Dibrani, could return to France to finish her studies, but that her family would not be able to join her.
At a time of grinding austerity and persistent unemployment across Europe, minorities and migrants are facing a growing political and economic backlash. The Roma, blighted by poverty and living in squalid housing on the outskirts of some European cities, have been singled out for attention. An estimated 11 million Roma are scattered across Europe.
In Greece, officers’ suspicions were raised when they spotted the girl, who has light blond hair, pale skin and green eyes and bore no resemblance to the other camp residents. Subsequent DNA tests proved that she was not related to the Roma couple who were harboring her, the police said.
A police official said parents with missing children “from several countries” had contacted Greek authorities asking for their DNA to be checked against that of Maria.
A charity that has taken the girl into its care said it has received thousands of calls from Greece and abroad after issuing an appeal for information.
The Roma couple had given conflicting explanations to the police about how they acquired the girl — including that they had found her outside a supermarket when she was infant. Ultimately, they said they had adopted her after she was abandoned by her birth mother, a Bulgarian national.
Panagiotis Tziovaras, the head of the Larissa police department, said Monday that it was possible the Roma couple were involved in human trafficking; state records showed them to have a total of 14 children registered in different parts of Greece. But he emphasized that it was too early to draw any firm conclusions.
“It could be an abduction, an illegal abduction, she could be a trafficking victim,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re looking at all these options.”
Documents found in the couple’s possession suggested that Ms. Dimopoulou had given birth to 6 of the 14 children within a 10-month period, the police official said, adding that Ms. Dimopoulou also had two police identity cards with different details and that Mr. Salis had been arrested over armed robbery in the past.
In comments on Greek television, one of the couple’s lawyers, Marietta Palavra, said that the pair may have sought benefits illegally but that they had not abducted the child. “They felt sorry for her and adopted her from the birth mother,” she said.
Since leaving the Roma camp, Maria has been in the care of an Athens charity called The Smile of the Child; officials there said she was “calm” after a traumatic transition. “She was terrified on the first day after leaving the camp but now she seems happy, she’s been playing with dolls and drawing,” the charity’s director, Costas Yiannopoulos, said by telephone.
He said Maria’s case had “opened a Pandora’s box about what’s happening with the Roma and the exploitation of children in Greece but also in Europe.” He said there were no statistics to indicate how many children were victims of such rackets “because the authorities have not tackled the issue for fear of being accused of racism.”
Representatives of the Roma community in Farsala appeared on several Greek television channels on Monday, asserting that Maria had received good care at the camp. The head of the Farsala Roma community, Babis Dimitriou, said that the biological parents of the child were a Bulgarian Roma couple who had been at the camp last week during the police raid but had left. He expressed fears that the case would fuel discrimination against Roma in Greece and beyond.
Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens, and Dan Bilefsky from Paris.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 21, 2013
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misspelled the surname of the mother who was ordered jailed. She is Eleftheria Dimopoulou, not Dimolpoulou.

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