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NJ dad's custody fight threatening U.S.-Brazil ties

December 18, 2009 5:37:11 PM PST
A New Jersey man made an emotional plea Friday for Brazilian authorities to let him take his son home in a custody fight that is expanding into a political tussle and testing the limits of an international child abduction treaty. David Goldman has worked through courts in the U.S. and Brazil for more than five years to regain custody of his son, Sean. The boy was taken by his mother in 2004 to her native Brazil, where she then divorced Goldman, remarried and ultimately died last year in childbirth.

"I'm on my knees begging for my son to come home, begging for justice," Goldman said.

Late Friday, he got some help from Brazil's attorney general.

Citing the country's responsibilities under the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, Luis Inacio Adams appealed a Supreme Court justice's decision that blocked the transfer of Sean to his father.

"Failing to follow that accord will lead to the imposition of sanctions and damage the reputation of Brazil before the international community," Adams wrote in a briefing posted on the Supreme Court's Web site. Goldman's attorneys also filed an appeal.

It was not clear when the judges will take up the appeals; the court went into a six-week recess Friday, though it can hear urgent cases during that period.

Goldman's case, which has slogged through Brazil's legal system for years, gained momentum when a federal appellate court ruled Wednesday that the boy should be handed over to Goldman. But the next day, the Supreme Court judge stayed that decision pending a top court ruling on whether the boy's own wishes should be heard.

The boy's Brazilian family applauded the order blocking Sean's transfer.

"He has already lost his mother, and now he could lose his (half) sister, his closest link to his mother," Sean's maternal grandmother, Silvana Bianchi, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.

But New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, who is in Brazil supporting Goldman, questioned the merits of hearing testimony from a child who may be susceptible to pressure from adult relatives.

"If any court anywhere accepts information provided by a 9-year-old ... in front of a camera under duress, coercion or some other kind of manipulation, kidnappers around the world will rejoice," Smith said. "All they have to do is coerce their kidnapped victim to say, 'I want to stay in Japan, Brazil or anywhere."'

An independent attorney who specializes in the Hague Convention, which seeks to ensure that custody decisions are made by the courts in the country where the child originally lived, said it could set a bad precedent.

"If the Brazilian courts ultimately refuse to have the matter decided in New Jersey, it is an affront to international law and no child is safe to travel out of the United States," said Greg Lewen, of the Miami-based law firm Fowler White Burnett.

The boy's wishes should be considered only "in determining the reason for the removal if there was some allegation that returning the child was unsafe, which is not alleged here," Lewen wrote in an e-mail.

After the Thursday stay was issued, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg placed a hold on a bill renewing a trade deal that allows Brazil and other countries to export some products duty-free to the United States. Brazil received about $2.75 billion in benefits last year from the agreement, according to Smith.

The U.S. Embassy released a statement expressing disappointment that Sean still cannot be reunited with his father.

"The fact that the American Secretary of State made a statement regarding a decision made by the Brazilian Supreme Court indicates that we are on the verge of an institutional crisis between the two countries," said Sergio Tostes, attorney for Sean's stepfather.

Tostes then issued a surprise invitation, announcing that Goldman's former mother-in-law is asking the American to spend Christmas with the family. It was not immediately possible to contact Goldman to see if he would accept.

University of Brasilia political scientist David Fleischer said the Goldman case - along with Brazil's refusal to extradite Cesare Battisti, a fugitive ex-militant who is wanted in Italy for murder but remains in Brazil despite an extradition treaty between the two nations - is harming the South American country's reputation.

"This is a case involving an international agreement of repatriation of children that Brazil has signed," Fleischer said, referring to the Hague Convention. "So Brazil will a get nasty international image as a country that doesn't comply with the international agreements it has signed."

Goldman said his tie as father is paramount, and it's time to end the fight.

"It's wrong, it's cruel, it's tragic and it's sad - and my son is suffering," he said.


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