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Romania: Officials Agree To Investigate Romany Children's Wedding

Romanian officials have announced they are opening an inquiry into the illegal wedding of a 12-year-old Romany girl to a 15-year-old Romany boy. The wedding has triggered strong criticism from officials and human rights groups abroad. Romany representatives say the marriage is in keeping with ancient traditions, but others say a forced union between two very young people is a violation of human rights.

Prague, 1 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Romanian government says it has opened an inquiry into the arranged wedding over the weekend of a 12-year-old Romany girl and a 15-year-old Romany boy. The wedding, in the central town of Sibiu, elicited a barrage of Romanian and international media attention.

During the lavish ceremony, 12-year-old Ana Maria Cioaba, the youngest daughter of self-styled Romany "king" Florin Cioaba, refused to wed 15-year-old Mihai Birita and fled the church. Ana Maria's father subsequently had her brought back against her will to complete the ceremony. Reports said the groom's family later presented the wedding guests with a bloodied bedsheet to prove the marriage had been consummated.

The legal age of consent in Romania is 15, and for marriage it is 16. The couple could not have been wed legally at the town hall. The event could even be possibly treated as statutory rape under the law.

Foreign media and Western officials have strongly criticized the wedding and called on Romanian authorities to protect the 12-year-old girl. Baroness Emma Nicholson, a British member of the European Parliament and an activist on behalf of Romanian children, told RFE/RL, "I hope and believe that the Romanian authorities will immediately remove this little girl from danger." Nicholson said she was dismayed that in modern-day Europe an underage person could be subjected to a "so-called marriage."

Nicholson said Romania, a European Union candidate hoping to join the bloc in 2007, has adopted international conventions on human rights and child protection. She said Romanian authorities should act accordingly. "It is an absolute breach of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and a clear breach of the even more powerful European Convention for Human Rights, which has the [European Court of Human Rights] court of Strasbourg to back it up. There can be no possible support for this unacceptable action," she said.

Romanian police, who were present outside the wedding -- but to direct traffic rather than prevent the ceremony -- have come under strong criticism. The presence of a former interior minister, Doru Viorel Ursu, who was the bride's best man, has further added to the controversy.

Representatives of some local Romany groups have defended the ceremony, saying it was conducted according to Romany traditions. Vasile Ionescu, of the Roma Center for Public Policies, told the media that the Roma must preserve their traditions in order to survive. Reuters quoted Ionescu as saying the government should amend legislation to allow Romany youths to marry according to tradition.

But deputy Madalin Voicu, the only Romany representative in Romania's parliament, harshly criticized the event, which he called "a shame" for the Romany minority. Voicu told RFE/RL that he "vehemently" opposed such so-called traditions. "[Even] if some of the Gypsies [Roma] say that these are Gypsy traditions, I will vehemently oppose such ideas," he said. "Gypsies must learn how to behave, how to align themselves to certain moral, educational, and civic standards, to give real signals that there is a common desire -- on the side of the majority, to give more attention to Romany problems, and on the side of the Roma, to show that they want to become faster a part of the real world, which is absolutely necessary."

Romania, in a sense, is caught in the middle. In the past, it has been criticized by Western officials for allegedly violating the rights of its ethnic Roma minority, estimated to number between 500,000 and 3 million people.

Baroness Nicholson said, however, that in this instance at least, international and European conventions prevail upon tradition. She said Romania has an obligation to respect EU documents and legislation. Besides, she said, in her opinion, some traditions have no intrinsic merit other than the fact that they are "traditions."

"A tradition as a tradition has no intrinsic merit except that of historical value. But some traditions we would thankfully discard and the rape of an underage child by another underage child -- created by their parents and their community and other members of the nation in which they are born -- that's not a tradition, that's a disgraceful abuse of children," Nicholson said.

Nicholson's criticism echoed the opinion of another Western official, European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs Anna Diamantopoulou. Diamantopoulou in July called on Romany leaders across Europe to put an end to the practice of using Romany children for begging and selling little girls to future grooms. Ana-Maria Cioaba had been promised for 500 gold coins when she was seven years old to the bridegroom, Mihai Birita, who is the son of a wealthy Romany family.

Diamantopoulou's spokesperson told RFE/RL that the commissioner believes Romanian authorities, who have embarked on a quest toward EU integration, must ensure human rights are not being violated. She also called on the Romany minority to adapt their traditions to the modern realities of Europe.

Romany activist Costel Bercus of the Romani Criss group, a Romany rights watchdog, said it will take time for the Roma to change their mentality. "We, as a human rights group, do not encourage such practices, because a child has a special status, a child must benefit from the state's special attention. But this [change of mentalities] is a process in which all of us must make more effort -- members of the [Romany] community as well as public institutions," Bercus said.

Nicholson, meanwhile, said she was willing to meet with Romany leaders in Romania to discuss the issue of child abuse. "Speaking personally, I would very much value meeting with Roma leaders so that I personally could talk this through with them," she said. "Certainly, I am in contact with the Romanian authorities, and I'm confident they will take action."

But Nicholson reiterated that in her opinion, the incident was "a straightforward case of child abuse" and urged the Romanian authorities to act urgently and quickly.