Eight-year-old Michael caught in bitter international custody fight.
By RUTH EGLASH
A French immigrant who has been waging a cross-national custody battle with her ex-husband will find out in the coming days whether the Supreme Court will allow her to continue raising her eight-year-old son as an Orthodox Jew or whether she will have to relinquish him into the hands of his non-Jewish father, who will raise him in Belgium as a Christian.
Ronite Bitton, who made aliya less than two years ago, has been fighting for more than five years to retain custody of her son, Michael, and for the past six months has been embroiled in a losing legal battle to prevent him from being extradited from Israel and returned to his father in Europe.
"I feel powerless and I can't sleep at night," Bitton told The Jerusalem Post in an emotional interview Thursday. "I've sent letters to Israel's prime minister, the president and even the state comptroller asking for emergency measures to stop this decision on humanitarian grounds."
But Bitton and Michael are up against a binding Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, which has been signed by 77 countries including Israel, under which she stands accused of abducting her own child and failing to allow the father, Francois Georis, to see him.
Based on the convention and the rulings of a Belgian court, which in 2005 awarded Georis custody of his son, a Beersheba court ruled in April that Michael must leave Israel and his mother and be returned to his father in accordance with international and European law.
"Michael is in complete distress about being returned to his father," stated Bitton. "He has told all the adults he knows that he does not want to leave Israel and be forced to return to Belgium... He says he does not want to go to church and wants to stay Jewish and he wants to stay with his mother."
Bitton claimed that she was not given a fair trial in Israel. She said she did not receive a translator during the court proceedings, and that the judge refused to listen to testimony directly from her son. She also said that removing her son from the only life he knows will cause him serious psychological harm.
"The problem here is that the courts, being zealous to uphold the Hague Abduction Convention, interpret the defenses that are allowed much too narrowly," commented Dr. Rhona Schuz, senior lecturer and co-director of the Center for the Rights of the Child and Family at the Sha'are Mishpat College of Law and a visiting lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, who has been observing this case for the past several months.
"This child has been receiving an ultra-Orthodox education for the past year and a half, and that is a lengthy amount of time in a child's life. The fact that he is going to be sent to his Christian father will cause psychological damage," said Schuz, who is an expert in the field of international child abductions. "Bitton definitely has a case here."
Schuz pointed out that there are a number of defenses to the mandatory return of the child under the Hague Abduction Convention, including grave risk that return will cause physical or psychological harm to the child and the child's objection to being returned to the other parent. "In this case," she said, "the judge did not hear the child directly, as required by the regulations."
However, attorney Edwin A. Freedman, who is representing Georis, rejected this claim, saying that it was not common legal practice for a judge to have "young children speak," because it was likely they had been "influenced by the parent."
Freedman also said that the judge had accepted a request by Bitton for a psychologist to evaluate her son and his relationship with his father.
"The psychologist deemed there was warm relations between father and son," noted Freedman, adding that Bitton was raising a "smokescreen to avoid the real issue."
He added: "She [Bitton] took the child away from his father, and turned his life around by 180 degrees by bringing him to Israel and starting an Orthodox lifestyle. She also denied the boy any rights to communicate with his father. This is a gross violation of the Hague Convention."
Asked why he thought it important for Israel to uphold such a convention even if it meant extraditing a young child and forcing him to take up another religion, Freedman said: "Most countries that believe in the rule of law are opposed to unilateral international kidnapping of children. If we don't keep up our side of this convention then how can we expect Israeli children who have been kidnapped to be returned to us?"
A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court said she could not respond to the Bitton-Georis case until the judges had issued a ruling on the matter.
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