From Richard Owen in Rome
A TEN-YEAR-OLD girl, tracked by police to an Alpine hideout where she had taken refuge after saying that she would rather commit suicide than return to her native Belarus, was spared immediate repatriation by an Italian court yesterday.
The girl, whose name is Vika (short for Viktoria) Moroz but who is referred to in Italy as Maria, was hidden three weeks ago by her would-be adoptive parents, Maria and Alessandro Giusto. They claimed that she faced beatings and even rape if she returned to her orphanage in Belarus.
Police traced her to a retreat at a fortified monastery in Saint-Oyen, Val d'Aosta, near the border with Switzerland. She was living there secretly in the care of the Giustos' mothers, Maria Elena Dagnino and Maria Bordi. Police were tipped off about her hideout after photographs were circulated of the "grannies".
Vika has spent her holidays with her prospective new family at Cogoleto near Genoa every summer for the past three years. She is part of a foster programme involving treatment and holidays abroad for 30,000 Belarussian children suffering from the long-term consequences of the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago. But this time, after Vika's complaints about the orphanage, the Giustos refused to let her return.
Their mothers took her into hiding with the complicity of Father Francis Darbellay, the head of the retreat. He said that he gave refuge to "anybody in distress, regardless of their colour, creed or circumstances. I would give refuge even to Osama bin Laden."
The Giustos have defied pressure for three weeks to reveal Vika's whereabouts, despite the risk of abduction charges and a Genoa court order requiring her to be sent back.
The orphanage dismissed the allegations that Vika was abused as "a fantasy invented by a family which wants to have a child", while the Government demanded her "immediate and unconditional return". Aleksei Skripko, the Belarussian Ambassador to Italy, said yesterday: "The girl will be kept in a safe, well-guarded place, and then will be repatriated." He said that she had received proper care at the orphanage at Vilyeyka, north of Minsk.
But the Giustos said that medical check-ups had revealed "multiple bruises, burns and other traces of violence" on the girl's body. They said they began to suspect that Vika was being abused after she tied up her Barbie dolls and made them kiss each other, saying that it was a game played at the orphanage. Psychological tests had confirmed their fears that she had been sexually abused, possibly by older children.
The Giustos say that Vika tried to drown herself in the sea off the Riviera coast this summer rather than return to Belarus, and had told them that she would "find a knife and stab herself to death" if she was taken back forcibly. The psychologist they consulted said that Maria had told him: "If I become an angel no one will be able to do me any harm any more and I shall stay for ever with my foster parents."
Yesterday the Court of Appeal in Genoa postponed for several days a ruling on the decision by the tribunal for minors that the girl should be returned. In the meantime Vika would be entrusted to a children's home in Italy.