Iranian court grants custody of children to French father
MARSEILLE, FRANCE // A father learned Farsi, converted to Islam and put his faith in Iranian justice in an extraordinary child custody battle that has ended with the return of his son and daughter to France.
Dany Laurent, from the eastern French city of Besançon, was reunited with his children nearly two weeks ago despite fears that tension between France and Iran could present an insurmountable obstacle.
Mr Laurent's former wife, who is Iranian and, like him, is a French schoolteacher, took Diane, now 12, and her brother, Etienne, nine, to her own country in 2006 in defiance of a court order that awarded him custody.
The affair developed, as French media have noted, with echoes of the film and book, Not Without My Daughter, the story of an American woman, Betty Mahmoody, who smuggled her child out of Iran amid bitter conflict with her Iranian husband.
Ms Mahmoody depicted her actions as a desperate escape from a violent and oppressive new life. Her husband strongly disputed her version and some critics said the film misrepresented Iranian Islamic culture.
In the case of Diane and Etienne, the outcome has left Mr Laurent full of praise for Iranian justice.
Having resolved never to abandon his fight to win back his children, Mr Laurent was finally able to convince the Iranian authorities to hand them back.
At one point in the legal process, an Iranian court in the Tehran suburb of Karaj, the home of Fatemah's family, revised a previous intention to close the file after hearing the pleadings of Mr Laurent and his Franco-Iranian lawyer.
The judge, recalling experiences during and after the Iran-Iraq war, told him: "You are not a Muslim but, when I was a prisoner in Iraq, my life was saved by a Christian Iraqi doctor. You're a human being, a father searching for his children and I will do my duty."
Fatemah was convicted of illegally bringing the children into the country, a decision that significantly raised Mr Laurent's hopes of being reunited with the them. Four months later, in mid-June, they were traced to Karaj.
His former wife faced three years in jail but Mr Laurent, 54, followed the same judge's suggestion not to seek her imprisonment.
There was still a stumbling block. Mr Laurent's lawyer warned that police would not hand over children being brought up as Muslims to a non-Muslim. He then converted to Islam.
Mr Laurent contrasts the treatment he received in Iran with the way he sees the case was handled in France.
He said he had little help from the French authorities, even though both children had French nationality and were in social security care pending a gradual return to paternal custody as ordered by the courts.
Fatemah had accused him of sexually molesting and harming their daughter, a charge rejected by the courts as baseless.
The mother took advantage of unsupervised access to plan her departure. She obtained passports for the children in Besançon and visas from the Iranian consulate across the Swiss border in Bern. She then flew with them to Tehran from Geneva.
Mr Laurent said he took heart from his understanding that, in the event of marital break-up, Iranian law automatically assigned custody to the father once any child reached the age of seven.
However, he was concerned that strained Franco-Iranian relations and his status as a westerner would count against him.
In France there were also setbacks, even though a court ruling five months after the abduction awarded full custody to Mr Laurent, leading to a warrant being sent to Iran by the international police agency, Interpol.
A letter to Jacques Chirac, then president, went unanswered, he said. His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, offered sympathy but no more. After publicity about his campaign, he was seen by a regional official in Besançon, "not to help me but to threaten legal action if I continued to criticise his inaction".
"I experienced [Iranian] judges who were more humane and conscientious that certain French judges," he told the newspaper Le Monde.
The children did not attend school in Iran but had some home education and sporting activities. Despite having left the country of their birth seven years ago, they speak French, though Diane's command of the language is stronger.
Mr Laurent realises he faces another stiff task as he helps them readjust to life in France without their mother.
Diane was in tears when she telephoned her mother after arriving back in France. Her father says the first night was hard and that it will take time to heal the scars left by long separation.
Father and daughter have already been busy looking online at schools she and her brother may attend from September. Diane misses Iran and moans that there seems "nothing to do" in Besançon, while admitting that she has barely been there for a two weeks. Etienne is much quieter but plays contentedly with his toys.
Despite the court decisions against his former wife, Mr Laurent knows she commands the children's affection. "I am reluctant to speak for them but, while they naturally miss her, they have also said they are happy to be with me again," he said. He believes his wife married him to gain French residential rights rather than for love.
But he says relations with her have improved after he regained the children's custody. He wants contact to be maintained and hopes all remaining proceedings against her in France are dropped, allowing her to visit.