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Updated: Mon, 21 Oct 2013 08:59:10 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

'Blond angel' Roma child-trafficking case in Greek court



A Greek charity says thousands answered its appeal for help identifying a girl known as "the blond angel" who was allegedly abducted and kept by a Roma couple. They include people from the U.S., Scandinavia, Australia, South Africa and other places. Reuters

A Greek charity says thousands answered its appeal for help identifying a girl known as "the blond angel" who was allegedly abducted and kept by a Roma couple. They include people from the U.S., Scandinavia, Australia, South Africa and other places. Reuters

A Greek charity says thousands have answered its appeal for help identifying a girl — now known as "the blond angel" — who was allegedly abducted and kept by a Roma couple.  

The "Smile of the Child" charity, which is caring for the girl, says it received more than 8,000 phone calls and thousands of emails. They include people from the U.S., Scandinavia, Australia, South Africa and other places.

Spokesman Panayiotis Pardalis told The Associated Press on Monday: "You can imagine the huge number of tips we're getting." He said relatively few had specific details, and have been forwarded to police.  

The appeal follows the discovery last week of the blond, blue-eyed girl, believed to be about four.  

A 39-year-old woman and a 40-year-old man have been charged — and deny — her abduction. They were scheduled to appear in court Monday.

In Farsala, Greece, otherwise happy residents living in prefabricated homes in a Roma camp have begun to worry about resentment.

They are at the centre of the child abduction case, with a couple from their community accused of abducting the blonde, blue-eyed girl.

Hopes there is no backlash

The Roma, a poor people in a country devastated by an economic crisis, try to make a living in the camp on the outskirts of the central town of Farsala by selling fruit, carpets, blankets, baskets and shoes at local markets. They say they are already considered by some to be social outcasts, thieves and beggars.

Now, they fear they will be stigmatized as child traffickers. The president of the local Roma community, Babis Dimitriou, hopes there is no backlash against the 2,000 Roma living in the community.

The case "doesn't reflect on all of us," he told The Associated Press on Sunday.

DNA tests proved the couple raising the girl aren't her biological parents.

People in the community are wary of media attention and resent what they say is neglect by the state. The only thing authorities have provided, they say, is the prefab houses that replaced the tents they were living in eight years ago.

What the local Roma seem keen to convey is that their community is not involved in either child abductions or trafficking.

Bulgarians, not Greeks

Still,  regional police chief Lt.-Gen. Vassilis Halatsis said authorities have found "dozens" of child trafficking cases involving Bulgarian Roma in Greece.

"We know these cases exist, but they involve Bulgarians, not Greeks like us. There are no transactions involving children here," Dimitriou insists, adding that the 40-year-old woman, who had registered Maria as her own child, "cared for her even better than for her own children."

Another resident of the community, who lives with the Roma but is not one of them, takes their side.

"There is no buying and selling of children here … the other Roma are not to blame," 42-year-old Christos Lioupis said. "These are family people. After this event, the police have been searching everyone. Isn't this racist?"

But Halatsis said people take advantage of a flawed birth registration system to declare multiple children to receive state handouts.

Unusual case

The couple accused of abducting the girl had used multiple identities to register 14 children in three different cities, of whom only four have been identified, Halatsis said. An examination of the birth dates of the children shows that the woman, at one point, was giving birth every four months, he said. Overall, the couple received 2,500 euros per month in state assistance.

"We are dealing with a very unusual case," Halatsis said. "Usually, parents report a child's disappearance, and we look for the children. In this case, we have the child and we are looking for its (her) parents.

"So far, we have had calls from France, Poland, even the United States. We are looking at each case, to see if the ages match, and if there are similar features. DNA testing will follow."

He added: "At this point, we can't say there is a child trafficking network involved, but we are looking at this possibility," the police chief said. He said there have been documented cases of Greek childless couples buying children of Bulgarian Roma for up to 15,000 euros.

Making public the names of the couple that harboured Maria would give a boost to the search for her parents, Halatsis said, but that is up to the judicial authorities.

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