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Ruben case highlights child-kidnapping plight

Ruben's father protested outside the Swiss embassy in 2004 over the case


The case of Ruben Bianchi, returned to his Italian father after spending three years on the run with his Swiss mother, has made headline news in Switzerland.

Each year the Swiss authorities deal with cases of international child abduction, which are mostly carried out by the mother following disputes over child custody.

Former Swiss cycling champion Lucille Hunkeler is currently in jail in Rome accused of abducting Ruben four years ago after an Italian court denied her custody of the boy.

Hunkeler, a Swiss-Italian citizen, was arrested in Mozambique in late October while travelling with her eight-year-old son and her two other children.

She was tracked down following a joint Swiss-Italian investigation, according to the Swiss authorities, after both countries issued an international arrest warrant for her.

Ruben has now been returned to his father, Italian sports doctor Stefano Bianchi. Bianchi was awarded custody of Ruben in 2002 by an Italian court following the couple's divorce. This decision was confirmed by the Swiss Federal Court.

Hunkeler fled with her son to Switzerland in December 2003. A court ordered her to return to Italy but she went into hiding in southeastern Switzerland.

In 2005, she left for Africa, where she had two further children. Before her arrest she had been living at a secret address on the West African island of Sao Tome.

The Swiss foreign ministry says it is following the case. "We have consular contact with the affected people and the responsible authorities," said Carine Carey, a ministry spokeswoman.

Lucerne cantonal police have opened an investigation into whether the former cyclist's family helped Hunkeler during her flight. Officials are expected to travel to Rome, where they will hold talks about the case with their Italian counterparts, it was reported on Monday.

Swiss cases

The Ruben case is the latest in a series of high-profile international child abductions to make the news in Switzerland.

Figures from the Swiss justice ministry's Central Authority for Dealing with International Child Abduction show that in 2006 it dealt with 179 such cases – of which 93 were ongoing cases from the year before.

In 68 per cent of cases the mother was responsible for the kidnapping.

Switzerland is one of the 73 countries worldwide that has signed up to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. It is also a member of the European Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Decisions concerning Custody of Children and on Restoration of Custody of Children.

Interests of the child

The authority says that these two instruments follow the same objectives: to respect custody arrangements following the abduction of a child and to guarantee access rights for parents.

However, Stephan Auerbach from the Swiss Foundation of International Social Services said in such cases the authorities should make a greater effort to mediate between the two sides instead of passing a judicial judgement.

"This is something which is not done today but will be in the new law... which will make mediation a very strong argument in child abduction cases," he told swissinfo.

Earlier this year the government approved a message supporting a law on international child abductions.

Under the legislation, procedures for returning children would be shortened and simplified. In future, only the highest legal instances will be able to pronounce on such cases. Appeals would still be considered by the Federal Court.

Auerbach is hopeful. "If [the new law] is applied as we hope it will, it will be quite revolutionary because it will change the angle of attack, so to speak," he said.

"At present the angle of the procedure is always the quick return of the child to the country where he or she came from. Under the new law the focus will really be on the interests of the child – what is the child's situation, environment and opinion?"


International child abductions

The Central Authority for Dealing with International Child Abduction handled 179 cases in 2006, of which 93 were ongoing cases.

In 68% of the cases the mother was responsible for the abduction. In cases concerning visiting rights this rose to 80% in 2006.

New requests in 2006 concerning the return or visiting rights affected 118 children, with the average age of six.

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