Judges are using contempt laws to jail parents who abduct children and remove them from the UK.
In the most recent case, a father has been jailed for a year after failing to return his two daughters from Libya to the UK in defiance of four High Court orders.
Mr Justice Moor said that the father was in breach of “the wilful and sustained contempt and deliberate concealment of the children since March”. It is the latest case in which a parent has been given a lengthy prison term for removing a child, usually to a country with which there is no international regime for the return of children to Britain.
Last month, Mrs Justice Theis jailed Usama al-Barwani to 12 months for contempt of court over the abduction of his children, Aisha, now 12 and Faris, now 6, five years ago to Oman. He had only been released from prison in November after serving half of a four-year sentence for child abduction.
Latest figures show that in 2015, 21 cases of parental child abductions were prosecuted, of which 17 resulted in successful convictions. Other cases involve imprisonment for contempt when parents defy court orders, although often the threat of jail works to secure the child’s return.
Alison Shalaby, chief executive officer of Reunite, the charity, said: “We are seeing an increasing number of parents wrongfully removing or retaining their children in a foreign country, to then leave the child in that country and return back to the UK alone.”
In 2011, Lord Judge, who was then the lord chief justice, signalled tougher sentences, saying “abduction of children from a loving parent is an offence of unspeakable cruelty to the loving parent and to the child or children”.
Father given 12-month sentence after taking children to Libya
Tanya Borg, a Maltese-born British citizen now living in Wiltshire, went to court to seek the committal of her husband for contempt after he ignored repeated orders to return their children.
Mohammed Said Maoud El-Zubaidy, a Libyan-born British citizen living in north London, took his three children to Tunisia in February 2015 for an agreed visit to see their paternal grandmother. However, he then took the children into Libya and, according to their mother, refused to bring them back.
In October 2016, the father returned with their 12-year old son, who has since lived with his mother. He promised to bring back the girls, aged 17 and five, within three days, but failed to do so.
In March the case came before Judge Robertshaw, who ordered the father to return the children by the end of that month. The father failed to comply and the case went before three more judges: Mr Justice Holman on April 6, Mr Justice Macdonald on April 25 and Mr Justice Hayden on May 24. All three ordered for the children to be returned and for there to be regular phone contact with the mother.
The father argued that he was unable to contact the girls and that under Libyan law, they could only leave Libya if accompanied by him.
At a committal hearing last month, Mr Justice Moor rejected a written statement from the father, in which he argued that Libya was a war zone and that he desperately wanted his children to return to England.
Rejecting the man’s case “in its entirety”, the judge said “I am sure that he is in complete control of what is going on”. He found that the father had “deliberately thwarted” daily communication between the mother and daughters by failing to provide correct phone numbers or messaging accounts.
Sentencing the father for a total of 12 months the judge said that the contempts were “so serious” that only a custodial sentence was appropriate.
Hilary Lennox, a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill chambers who acted for the father, said: “The judges are sending a message to child abductors who believe they are above the law because the child is outside the UK and do not have to comply with UK orders.”
Such sentences were rare in the past but in recent years it has become more common to send child abductors to prison.