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24 Sep, 2009 06:29

Child custody battles turn ugly

In Russia, more and more children are falling victim to the custody battles of their divorcing parents. In some cases, the disputes have resulted in the kidnap of a child by one of the parents involved.

Divorce in Russia can be a complicated process, and without a proper legal base, children are fought over as if they were merely property to be divided..

They seemed a perfect family – a loving wife and caring husband. With their three children, the Vafaevs moved into a beautiful summer home they’d bought in Spain.

No one thought the fairytale could turn into a nightmare.

Just months later, Nina Vafaeva claims, her husband cheated on her, so they divorced. For more than a year since that day, she has not been able to contact her children.

“When I hear from someone where they are, I want to go there, but my ex-husband moves them to another country. They were in Spain, – I went there. But he took them to Greece, to Turkey, and later – to Italy,” Nina Vafaeva says.

Nina’s lawyers are certain – 9-year-old Ali, 7-year-old Shamil, and the youngest – Melisa, who’s now 6, have a right to see their mother.

“Mr.Vafaev is violating the court’s rulings. He was ordered several times to bring the children to Russia for psychological evaluation, and so that their opinion could also be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, we still don’t know where the children are and whether they are well or not,” Olga Wagner, Nina Vafaeva’s lawyer said.

It’s hard to enforce the court rulings as long as the children are being kept abroad. The legal battle has been going on for over a year now. Neither side is willing to give up.

Nina Vafaeva’s story is not unique. Dozens of Russian children get caught in cross-border disputes between their parents. Several cases have recently made the headlines, sparking nation-wide debate.

Russia’s top lawyers defended the rights of Irina Belenkaya in a French court last summer as the woman was accused of kidnapping her own 3-year-old daughter Lisa from her dad – Jean Michel Andre.

Rimma Salonen faces similar charges in Finland. The authorities say she kidnapped her son Anton. Later Anton’s Finnish father, Paavo, brought the boy to Finland in the trunk of a diplomat’s car, causing a scandal.

“The extreme child kidnapping cases are just the tip of the iceberg. There are 700 000 divorces in Russia annually. How many kids stay with one parent? It’s rare when the parents agree on their custody, so the children lose touch with their parents and grandparents. There is also a legal vacuum. We have to introduce two things in the country’s family code – the court has to make its own ruling on the custody, and secondly – parents should face criminal punishment for not following the court’s rulings,” says Boris Altshuler from the “Child’s Right” watchdog organization.

Lawyers who handle cross-border disputes complain there are almost no legal mechanisms for enforcing rulings internationally, which is typical not only of the Russian judicial system. So in many cases, sensitive issues like the custody of children become a serious problem.

In the Southern Russian city of Novorossiysk, Nina Vafaeva visits the playground where she used to spend time with her two sons and daughter.

As she prepares for yet another trial, she hopes against hope she will be able to see her children again. For Nina, the pain of not knowing where they are is too much to bear.