Parental Child Abduction in India

There has been a rash of cases concerning parents who remove a child from the United States to India without the consent of the other parent and then refuse to return the child to this country.

Parents often have a grave misunderstanding of the serious nature of such parental child abduction. Many believe that simply because India is not yet a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (the “Hague Convention”) the legal system can neither prevent nor cure a parent's unauthorized removal of a child from the United States to India. Such views are totally mistaken.

Criminal Law

U.S. federal law makes kidnapping a crime even when it is committed by one of the child's parents. The International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act (IPKCA), 18 U.S.C. 1204, makes it a federal felony to remove a child under the age of 16 from the United States, or to retain a child outside the United States with the intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights. In addition, every state recognizes that the abduction of a child by his or her parent is a serious crime, subject to penalties in excess of one year in prison.

The International Parental Kidnapping Law has been used against Indian parents on many occasions. For example, Dr. Fazal Raheman, who was convicted of the crime in the following circumstances: He had married his wife in India and moved with her to Massachusetts. They had two children. After a few years he apparently became concerned that his wife was becoming too “independent” and he “made threats” against her. He then took the children without her consent to his former home in Nagpur, India and refused to return them.

His wife obtained an emergency custody order from a court in Massachusetts while the husband obtained a custody order in his favor from the Nagpur Family Court. The mother traveled to India to try to find her children and bring them home but her husband filed criminal charges against her in India and she fled to the United States without her children.

Dr. Raheman was then charged with the crime of international parental kidnapping. He was also charged with wire tapping since he had illegally tapped his wife's telephone and videotaped her. He was captured during a return trip to the United States and after trial he was convicted of both charges and was sentenced to three years' imprisonment, followed by three years of supervised release. He was ultimately released from prison on condition that he effect the return of his two children - then 12 and 8 years of age - to their mother in the United States.

However, Dr. Raheman then proceeded to provide false information to the Nagpur Family Court, which was found to have inhibited the likelihood that the children would be returned to the United States. As a result he was sentenced to a further year and a day in prison. The Nagpur court transferred custody of the children to Raheman's elderly mother in Nagpur and the mother had no contact with them except for sporadic visits. Imposing the second sentence, Judge Patti B. Saris harshly criticized Raheman for stealing the children from their home in the U.S., and noted that Raheman had betrayed the trust of the country which had given him great benefits while he lived here.

Dr. Raheman appealed but a federal appellate court held that the International Parental Kidnapping Act was applicable to a father who took his children from the United States to India even though the pre-decree abduction was not illegal under state law. United States v. Fazal-Ur-Raheman-Fazal, 355 F.3d 40 (1st Cir. 2004).

In a second case, Sanjay Sardana, a father of Indian descent, was convicted after a jury trial of taking his three-year old daughter to India with the intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights by the child's mother, his estranged wife, in violation of the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act. The defendant appealed unsuccessfully to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Details of the case are at U.S. v. Sardana, 101 Fed. Appx. 851 (2d Cir. 2004).

Another recent case of great significance concerned a Syrian national who abducted his child to Syria. In that case the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the imposition of the maximum sentence of 36 months against the abductor even though the sentence significantly exceeded the sentencing guidelines for the crime. The reason for the harsh sentence was that the father refused to bring his children back from Syria. USA v. Riadh Abdul Rahman Dallah, 192 Fed. Appx. 725 (10th Cir. 2006).

Some other relevant laws are:

  • The Extradition Treaties Interpretation Act of 1998, 18 U.S.C. 3181, which authorizes the United States to interpret extradition treaties that list "kidnapping" as including the offense of parental kidnapping;
  • The Fugitive Felon Act, 18 U.S.C. 1073, which enhances the ability of states to pursue abductors beyond state and national borders; permits the FBI to investigate cases that would otherwise be under state jurisdiction; and authorizes the use of Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution (UFAP) warrants in family abduction cases; and
  • The Alien Exclusion Act, 8 U.S.C. (A)(9)(C)(I), which provides that any alien who, in violation of a custody order issued by a court in the United States, takes or retains a child out of the United States, may be excluded from the United States.

Civil Law

On many occasions parents of Indian origin have taken a child to India and have immediately sought favorable custody orders from the Indian courts. Usually such efforts will not be recognized in the United States and they may well be counterproductive. A U.S. court will not permit parents to evade U.S. jurisdiction by the subterfuge of a parent taking the child to another jurisdiction.

A recent example is the California case of In re Marriage of Sareen, 153 Cal.App.4th 371, 62 Cal.Rptr.3d 687 (Cal. App. Dist.3 06/21/2007). The parents were married in New Delhi and then moved to New York, where their daughter was born. They later went on vacation to Switzerland but when changing planes in Germany the husband insisted that they fly to India. Three days later the husband filed for divorce and custody in India, took his wife's and the child's passports, left his wife and child in India and flew back to New York. Eventually the wife was able to return to the United States with her child and settle in California. The California court ultimately ruled that it had jurisdiction of the case, not India, because the husband had taken the child to India by means of a subterfuge.

Nonetheless, for many reasons India is generally a safe haven for child abductors who stay in India and do not leave. This is firstly because India is not a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and because no Indian legislation sets forth helpful law on this issue. Furthermore, the court system in India is extremely slow so that an abductor has ample time to create “facts on the ground” in terms of getting the child sufficiently settled into life in India as to justify an Indian court in ultimately deeming that it is best to keep the child in India.

The law in India was previously settled that foreign children taken by a parent to India without the consent of the other parent would normally be returned to their country of residence or nationality. However recent decisions of courts in India have changed that rule and have held that foreign custody orders are merely items to consider as part of an overall custody review. Thus in a decision dated March 3, 2006 the Bombay High Court at Goa refused to issue a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a British mother from Ireland whose eight-year-old daughter had allegedly been abducted to Goa by the child's American father. The High Court dismissed the mother's application on the ground that normal custody hearings should be undertaken and completed in Goa. One case where a fair result was ultimately obtained was Gahun v. Gahun, the High Court of Delhi at New Delhi ruled in 2006 that it would not accept jurisdiction of an application for custody by a mother of Indian descent who had lived with her husband in Canada for 12 years, had then taken their daughter for a vacation in India and had refused to return her to Canada.

As a consequence, courts outside India should be extremely wary about allowing parents to take children for temporary visits to India over the objections of the other parents since there is a great likelihood that parents who wrongfully retain children in India will get away with their wrongful conduct scot-free in India.

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