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German custody rules protested

Foreigners say courts deny their parental rights

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BERLIN — A group of parents from France and South Africa held a rally Saturday drawing support for their hunger strike to demand Germany give them greater access to their children caught up in custody battles here.

The protesters' complaints echo those of many foreign parents — including Americans — estranged from German spouses, who say German courts unfairly favor their own citizens in custody disputes. The issue has come up in talks between U.S. and German leaders.

Five French citizens and a South African who launched a hunger strike on Wednesday, held a rally Saturday in Berlin's Alexanderplatz square, planning to hold similar protests daily.

"We're protesting for the right to see our children, for their right to have both parents," Olivier Karrer said. 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.

About 50 German parents joined the rally. Three German fathers joined the hunger strikers, who have been drinking only sugared water.

Dozens of estranged parents from the United States and France have complained in recent years that German justice is stacked against them — even in cases where children have been illegally taken from their homes in other countries.

In particular, delays in bringing custody cases to court mean that children grow accustomed to Germany. Courts have in turn cited that as a reason not to award custody to a parent living abroad.

German and U.S. officials set up a working group on trans-Atlantic custody questions after former President 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," said Thomas Weber, a spokesman for the German Justice Ministry.

Hunger striker 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.