Associated Press, 17.07.2001


Hunger Strikers Protest German Child Custody Rules By Stephen Graham BERLIN (AP) - Desperate to see more of their children, parents from France and South Africa pledged Saturday to continue a hunger strike to force German authorities to give ground in international custody battles. Five French citizens, including one grandmother, and a South African are drinking only water with sugar in a protest highlighting issues that also have strained German-U.S. relationships. "We're protesting for the right to see our children, for their right to have both parents," said Olivier Karrer, at a rally Saturday also attended by about 50 German parents near Berlin's landmark Gedaechtniskirche church. The group began their fast Wednesday and plan to protest daily in Berlin's Alexanderplatz square. Three German fathers joined the hunger strike Saturday. Karrer, who lives in France, said a German court unfairly denied him custody of his son after he and partner separated three years ago. He says he has been allowed only minimal contact since with the boy, now 7. His complaints echo those of dozens of estranged parents from the United States and France in recent years that German justice is stacked against them. In particular, delays in bringing custody cases to court mean that children, including those who may have been illegally taken from their homes in other countries, grow accustomed to Germany. That, in turn, has been cited by courts as a reason not to award custody to a parent living elsewhere. German and U.S. officials set up a working group on trans-Atlantic custody questions after former President Bill Clinton raised U.S. concerns with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in June last year. German officials insist they cannot interfere with decisions taken by the courts. "The important thing is that parents in these often tragic cases know the authorities are doing what they can" to make sure parents get the access they are entitled to, said Thomas Weber, a spokesman for the German Justice Ministry. Hunger strikers such as Michael Hickman, a 48-year-old environmental consultant from Durban, South Africa, said they hoped the involvement of German parents in Saturday's protest will help bring more far-reaching change. "What laws there are, are not even enforced by the judges," said Hickman who says legal wrangles have denied him regular access to his two young sons for more than five years. German parents demonstrating Saturday said they had similar grievances. Hans Meyer, a 50-year-old financial adviser from Braunschweig, said he hoped that the protest also would break a stereotype of fathers not facing up to their responsibilities. "Maybe the kids will see us on TV and realize that we care, that we won't just accept this."