Belarus child in adoption row found

Aosta, September 27 - A ten-year-old child at the centre of an adoption row with Belarus was found by police on Wednesday in northern Italy .

The girl, who has been given the cover name Maria, had been hidden away by her would-be adoptive parents, Maria and Alessandro Giusto .

She was found in Saint Oyen, a small village in Val d'Aosta near the border with Switzerland, in the custody of the Giustos' parents .

The Giustos and their parents now face kidnapping charges .

Maria had been due to return to Belarus 20 days ago after spending the holidays with the Giustos, temporary foster parents whom she has stayed with for the past three summers .

But the Giustos, from Cogoleto near Genoa, refused to hand Maria back after she said she had been sexually abused by other children in her orphanage back home .

The couple took Maria to a secret hiding place with the help of their parents and defied threats of arrest in their determination to prevent the child being sent back .

The case strained relations between Italy and Belarus and risked jeopardising the annual temporary adoption programme of which Maria was part .

Every winter and summer, thousands of Belarussian children travel to Italy to stay with temporary foster parents in a programme which was first launched after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in neighbouring Ukraine .

Belarus has suspended the programme, which many of the Italian parents hope will eventually lead to permanent adoption, until Maria's case is resolved .

The Giustos said after Maria was taken away by the police that they were "desperate" .

Speaking from Cogoleto, the couple told the press: "We are desperate and exhausted... Please have pity on Maria, who has suffered from the day she was born" .

But the news was greeted with joy by the other parents involved in the foster scheme .

The parents, who held a demonstrations in front of government offices in Rome on Wednesday, said the Giustos' actions had threatened to sink the scheme .

They stressed that some 30,000 Belarussian children were allowed to visit Italy every year and that some 600 adoption applications were currently being processed .

"The Giustos have behaved selfishly, not generously. They didn't take into account the serious consequences of their actions, which have damaged not only Maria but lots of other children, many of them orphans with major health problems," the association representing the families said .

"Abduction must not be regarded as a solution to difficult adoption procedures... If a couple are faced with a child in need of help, they must not only follow their hearts. They must also trust public institutions and respect national and international law," it said .

Former foreign minister Gianfranco Fini, who heads the rightist National Alliance (AN), held talks with representatives of the association .

He said afterwards that while he understood the Giustos from a human point of view, their actions had "jeopardised the rights of thousands of other families and children and their dreams of adoption" .

Belarus has not only demanded Maria's return but is also insisting that the Giustos face kidnapping charges .

Belarussian Ambassador to Italy Alexei Skripko said last week that "Belarus wants a full investigation into the circumstances of this kidnapping including the punishment of all those responsible for carrying out aiding these illegal acts" .

A Genoa juvenile court also ordered the Giustos to hand back Maria .

But the couple told reporters last week: "The child has been subject to terrible violence in her home country and has threatened to kill herself if she is back" .

"The Italian State has to deal with this case. Our Constitution guarantees people's right to life, health and physical well-being," they said .