MADRID, Spain (WOMENSENEWS)–Maria Amparo Garcia Segarra’s daughter Cristina was kidnapped at age 1, whisked away to Egypt and hidden from her. The year was 1979. Garcia Segarra didn’t see the child again until she was 14, then endured another decade without her. During that period, she wrote her daughter 600 letters, each of them intercepted and thrown away by the kidnapper: Cristina’s father.
Throughout the ordeal, Garcia Segarra pleaded in vain with the Spanish justice system for help. But the idea that a father could be accused of kidnapping his own child escaped judges and government ministers.
"I couldn’t get an appointment," she told Women’s eNews in an interview. "They wouldn’t even open the door."
All that changed in December, when the Spanish Parliament approved a bill that classifies the offence as a full-fledged crime, rather than just a misdemeanor as it was until now, and raises the penalty from a maximum six months to two-to-four years in prison.
The distinction gains added importance because under Spanish law two years is the minimum needed for a judge to ask the French-based international police agency Interpol to issue an international arrest warrant for a fugitive parent who has made off with a child over whom he or she does not have custody.
The driving force behind the passage of the bill was a series of high-profile cases of children being kidnapped by one of their parents and the resulting public outcry, government officials said.
Since the law took effect, Interpol has issued four arrest warrants for fugitive fathers of Spanish-born children, although the children have not yet been returned, said the Association for the Recovery of Children Removed from their Country (la asociacion contra el secuestro parental). It is a private organization, based in the north-eastern city of Zaragoza, run largely by women who have been through the ordeal. Garcia Segarra is its president.
In passing the bill, Spain is filling a glaring gap in its legislation on child protection, association officials said. Spain signed the so-called Hague Convention on international child abduction in 1987 but is only now bringing its legislation up to par with the standards recommended in that accord, the association said.
While Spain may seem to playing catch-up, Nancy Hammer, director of the international division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., said it is common for countries to be slow about making parental abduction a crime rather than just the stuff of civil lawsuits.
"At first everyone looks at this as a family issue. And then you realize that sometimes the actions are so egregious on the part of the parent who abducts a child that they really do need to face to some sort of criminal punishment to stop the behavior," Hammer said in an interview.
Criminalization of the offense sends an important message to parents, she added. "This is a crime. It’s not just you being rude and doing something morally bad. You are breaking the law in doing this."
Until a few years ago, 99 percent of the kidnappers were fathers, but now women account for up to 20 percent of cases, Garcia Segarra said. The Justice Ministry, which is responsible for international kidnapping cases, could not provide figures. She said 80 percent of the time the kidnappers are foreign-born people, often from Muslim countries or Latin America, who flee to their native lands seeking the protection of laws that tend to favor men. The association said the figure is rising but could not give a precise number.
A Reunion after 24 Years
Garcia Segarra got to see her daughter again last year, this time because Cristina was now 25 and her Egyptian father was powerless to stop her. Mother and daughter had been trading e-mails and phone calls in English for some time, and newly married Cristina came from Egypt to Spain to introduce her husband to her mother.
"She is a wonderful woman," Garcia Segarra said. "She loves me very much. She never stopped loving me."
Garcia Segarra said hers is probably the oldest and most celebrated case of a phenomenon that she believes is rising for at least two reasons: a growing divorce rate and a long-homogeneous Spanish society that is becoming more open and ethnically richer, bringing together men and women from different cultures with sometimes contrasting ideas about child custody when marriages go sour.
Garcia Segarra has run the association for the past two years. She said the group has helped bring home 21 kids, but another 145 cases are pending.
Law May Have Little Effect
The new law defines kidnapping of one’s own child as taking him or her away from his or her residence without the consent of the parent who has custody or retaining a child in violation of a court order. There is a short grace period. A parent who kidnaps a child but repents and brings her or him back in 24 hours or less is let off the hook.
Garcia Segarra said the law will help because it will make people think twice about absconding with a child if they know it is a crime that could put them behind bars for years.
Others, however, disagree, and think the law is a paper tiger.
Myriam Emparanza, a Basque whose 6-year-old boy Eneko was kidnapped by his German father in 1998 and taken to Yemen, first to the capital San’a, then to a remote mountain village. Emparanza, whose case also gripped the nation, said an arrest warrant for a fugitive parent is useless.
"All it means is that, if by chance that person crosses a border, a computer will beep," she told Women’s eNews. "Having an international arrest warrant doesn’t mean someone is looking for the child. No one is looking for the child." Except the mother, she said.
Emparanza’s story is a year-and-three-month odyssey with a happy ending. She had custody of Eneko but her partner vanished with him during a Christmas visit. It took a private detective–a computer whiz who traced e-mails–and five gruelling and sometimes scary months in Yemen dealing with armed Muslim fundamentalists–associates of her husband–to get the boy back.
Emparanza said the father converted to Islam and ran off and hid the boy. By the time she regained custody, little Eneko, she said, was fast on his way to being converted to a militant brand of Islam. His name had been changed to Mounir. He was receiving training in the use of automatic weapons and grenades and spoke excellent Arabic.
Before a Yemeni court ruled her way, Emparanza said she spent weeks paying short visits to her son and working to reverse his brainwashing with reminders of home. She’d cook foods he liked, such as fried squid, show him photographs and help him make paper airplanes, just like he used to back in Spain.
"He had to remember. Little by little, I had to bring back for him all that he had lived before."
Garcia Segarra was less fortunate. Her daughter is now a grown woman who was raised in Egypt and still resides there.
"I’d like to have her close. I’m not going to lie about that. But on the other hand, I am not a selfish mother. I understand she has to be where she has made her life."
Daniel Woolls is a journalist based in Madrid.
For more information:
Hague Conference on Private International Law–Child Abduction Home Page:
International Center for Missing and Exploited Children:
U.S. State Dept.–International Child Abduction: