Brazil's Supreme Court delayed the return of a 9-year-old boy to his U.S. father only hours after the man arrived from New Jersey on Thursday in hopes of taking the boy home for Christmas.
The court suspended the previous day's appellate court decision ordering the child handed over to David Goldman, and held that the boy must stay in Brazil while it considers whether to hear his testimony in a case that has dragged on for five years.
The ruling means the boy will be in Brazil at least until Feb. 1, following the judges' return from a recess, according to a court spokesman who commented on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the case.
"The court of appeals, the three judges, recognized the urgency of my son to come home. This stay is ridiculous," Goldman said.
Goldman's lawyer Ricardo Zamariola confirmed the ruling means he will be unable to pick up his son Sean at the American Consulate in Rio on Friday, as a federal appeals court had ruled on Wednesday.
"We're studying the decision, and we'll decide what to do soon," Zamariola said.
Thursday's ruling, written by Justice Marco Aurelio Mello, found that "at stake is a fully formed life. At stake is the right to come and go, the right of opinion, expression and human dignity."
Mello told reporters afterward that the Supreme Court will "question the necessity of Sean, the boy, who is almost 10 years old, to be heard directly by a judge."
Silvana Bianchi, Sean's maternal grandmother, told the privately run Agencia Estado news service she was elated with the decision. According to her, Sean, who has dual citizenship, has said he wants to remain in Brazil.
"His testimony has never been heard," she said. "As a Brazilian citizen, he deserves it. He is a child of nearly 10 and he knows quite well what he wants."
To underscore that point, the lawyer for the Brazilian family showed reporters a card he said Sean drew. "I want to stay in Brazil forever," it read in large, green lettering.
Goldman, however, said it was wrong to ask a child to testify. He suggested that the family is unduly pressuring the boy, trying to convince him that he wants to remain in Brazil.
"Everyone knows the abuse that my son is being afflicted by," he said.
Brazil "does not want to be looked at as a country that is a safe haven for kidnappers, that will allow a child to remain separated from their only parent," Goldman added.
Wife's Brazilian divorce
In 2004, Goldman's wife, Bruna Bianchi, took Sean to her native Brazil.
Goldman says it was to be a two-week vacation, but she stayed and so did the boy. She eventually obtained a Brazilian divorce and remarried.
Goldman was already seeking his son's return under an international treaty that covers cross-border child abductions when his former wife died last year while giving birth to a daughter.
President Barack Obama, the U.S. Congress and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have all urged the child's return, and a U.S. congressman traveled to Rio on Thursday to continue lobbying the case.
Rep. Chris Smith said he was deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court's ruling and called on Brazil to send the boy back to the U.S. based on international law.
"We have a reciprocity agreement when it comes to abducted children," Smith said. "We all have an international obligation to work to get children back to their habitual residence."
‘Pursuit of truth’
Sergio Tostes, attorney for Sean's stepfather, Joao Paulo Lins e Silva, said the case should never have reached such high political levels.
"This is not a fight between two countries," Tostes said. "This is just the pursuit of the truth and the pursuit of what is in the best interest of the boy."
Goldman and Sean were reunited in February for the first time since his son was taken to Brazil. They have not seen each other since June.
Earlier Thursday, before the Supreme Court stay was announced, Goldman, dressed in black, stepped off a 12-hour flight from New York and into a large scrum of reporters in Rio.
Facing the crowd of cameras and microphones, he looked blank and appeared a man exhausted — by the flight, the custody fight and the possibility another last-minute appeal would keep him from taking his boy back to New Jersey.
"I hope I can go home with my son," Goldman said quietly.