An American couple, Iris Botros and Louis Andros, thought they were finally reaching their dream of having a child when they came to Botros' homeland, Egypt, to adopt twin orphans. Instead they found themselves in a cage in a courtroom, on trial for alleged child trafficking.
The pop star Madonna's attempt to adopt a second child from the African country of Malawi has shown how complicated international adoptions can be.
But in Muslim countries like Egypt, such adoptions are nearly impossible, snarled in religious tradition and murky laws. Botros and Andros, who live in Durham, N.C., also may have been caught up in an attempt by the Egyptian government to show it is cracking down on human trafficking after criticism from the United States.
The trial of Botros, Andros and another couple is the first of its kind in Egypt. In the tangle of the country's regulations and customs, even lawyers are unsure whether adoption is allowed. "I don't know if it is legal or illegal. Really, I don't know," said Aameh Saleh, the Egyptian lawyer representing Botros and Andros.
Islamic law forbids adoption
What is known is that Islamic law forbids adoption, and that is the law applied to Muslims in Egypt. The religion emphasizes maintaining clear bloodlines to ensure lines of patrimony and inheritance. At most, Muslims can take a child into long-term foster care, but such a situation does not allow the child to inherit from the foster parents.
Most often, orphans are informally taken in by their extended family, without any legal provisions. Almost all other Muslim countries in the Middle East have similar practices.
The law is far less clear concerning Egypt's Christian minority, to which Botros belongs. Adoptions within the Christian community — including by Egyptian Christians living abroad — do take place, usually involving a donation to a Christian orphanage. Proponents say this type of adoption is not explicitly banned, but still faces monumental barriers.
Many government officials are resistant to adoption — believing it is not allowed — and Muslim conservatives are opposed because they fear that Christians will adopt Muslim orphans and raise them as Christians.
The process is so long, confusing and tedious that the few Christians who try it often turn to backdoor methods like forgeries and bribes, sometimes organized by churches and mainly Christian orphanages.
"Adoption is organized throughout Egypt, through the churches," Saleh said. "The government knows about it all the time but turns a blind eye."
Botros, 40, and Andros, 70, likely thought they could do the same.
"She wanted to adopt children. She came to Egypt where there are so many poor and orphans," said Iman Faltass, Botros' aunt, who also lives in Durham. "I lived in Egypt until college and I knew people who adopted kids. It was simple and not illegal."
Efforts to adopt in U.S. failed
The couple, who own a Greek restaurant in Durham, tried for years to have a child and attempted to adopt in the U.S., where the two married 15 years ago, said Saleh. But several factors stood in their way, especially Andros' age.
On the advice of Egyptian friends, the two traveled to Cairo in the fall and were put in touch with a Coptic Christian orphanage that was caring for two newborn orphans.
The orphanage gave them forged documents to say Botros had given birth to the children, and the couple donated $4,600 to the orphanage, Saleh said. In November, Botros and Andros brought the twins, whom they named Victoria and Alexander, back to their temporary home in a mostly Christian neighborhood of Cairo.
But when they tried to get American passports for the babies, a U.S. Embassy employee became suspicious of them, Saleh said. When asked by an embassy official, Botros admitted she wasn't the biological mother, the lawyer said.
The couple was turned over to Egyptian police, who questioned them for several days before formally arresting them in December. The charges leveled against them were far more serious than either expected — child trafficking, forging documents and trying to smuggle people out of the country.
The two could face up to seven years in prison if convicted. In their first court session in March, Botros and Andros appeared in a metal cage in the courtroom — as defendants in Egyptian courts are always held during hearings — and pleaded not guilty. They are to appear for a second session on Saturday.
Others have been charged
Several doctors and orphanage administrators have also been charged. A second couple — Suzan Hagoulf, an American of Egyptian origin, and her Egyptian husband Medhat Metyas, who have been living in Egypt since 2003 — were also arrested in December.
Hagoulf and Metyas adopted a newborn from the same orphanage almost a year ago, according to their lawyer, Naguib Gibrail. When they wanted to visit the U.S. in late 2008, they applied at the U.S. Embassy, where officials asked for a DNA test on the child. The couple were reluctant to present one, and the embassy notified Egyptian police, Gibrail said.
He said he did not know where the couple had lived in the U.S. before coming to Egypt. They were charged with forging documents in their adoption — though not with child trafficking because their donation of about $70 to the orphanage was so much smaller than the other American couple's, the lawyer said, adding his clients deny any involvement in child smuggling.
"I know so many people who adopted children in Egypt but they were all kept secret," Gibrail said. The lack of a clear legal way for Christians to adopt "is pushing these people to forge documents. The state is pushing these people to commit a crime," he said.
Saleh says his clients, Andros and Botros, don't know the other couple. He said Andros and Botros didn't realize they were doing anything wrong, saying Botros asked workers at the orphanage if the process was legal and they assured her it was. Saleh noted that Botros has not lived in Egypt for 15 years and her husband has no connection to the country, so they were not acquainted with the country's laws.
Orphanage since closed
The orphanage has been closed by authorities since the couple was arrested, and its managers could not be found for comment.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo would not comment on the case. According to the State Department, few Egyptian children are adopted by American citizens. In fiscal year 2008, the U.S. issued two Egyptian orphans immigrant visas, which must be obtained for internationally adopted children to enter the United States, according U.S. government figures.
Given that most adoptions are clandestine, it was not possible to get figures on children adopted by citizens from other countries or adopted domestically within Egypt.
Some speculate that Egypt may be using the case to show the world it is fighting human trafficking. The U.S. and Israel have criticized Egypt in recent years for not doing enough to stop the flow of African migrants to Israel in search of jobs and a better life. The arrests came soon after Egypt's First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, launched a highly publicized campaign against human trafficking.
"The United States describes Egypt as a country of transit for human trafficking. The government wants to clear itself of this," Saleh said.
Egyptian officials did not respond to several requests by the AP to be interviewed. Egypt's minister of family and population, Moushira Khatab, told parliament this spring that the country should reconsider its laws pertaining to orphans and adoption. But she didn't elaborate.
Case highlights issues
Adoption experts said the case highlights the importance of being well-informed and working with governments and reputable agencies to make sure laws and social norms are followed.
"Every country whether we like it or not, whether it's good or not, whether it's healthy or not, every country has the right to make its own laws and if you are in that country, you are obligated to follow those laws," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, an advocacy group that researches ways to improve adoption policies.
Now Botros and Andros are in separate cells during their trial, allowed to write short letters to each other, which are delivered by guards, Saleh said. The babies now live with 60 other children in a Cairo orphanage.
"She called me once and she was so excited when she had the kids. She was telling me how beautiful they are and how she loved them," said Faltass, Botros' aunt in North Carolina.
"I can't understand how this is a crime."