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Tunisian Court to Decide Fate of Abducted Children

After eight-month custody battle, local mother hopes to bring her two U.S.-born children home

UPDATE (July 11): The Tunisian court has yet to announce its verdict. 

Édeanna Johnson-Chebbi said she has heard it might be a few more days before she will find out whether she can take her two children home to the U.S. 

"I am overwhelmed by the support and encouragement that has come our way recently. Throughout this entire situation we have been surrounded by the most positive, thoughtful and helpful people, in various manners, from around the globe," Johnson-Chebbi wrote on the Return US Home Facebook page Wednesday. "I just want to say THANK YOU to each and every one of you who have been following our story, prayed for us, and encouraged and supported us! Know that we are so very thankful.

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Nearly eight months after her ex-husband took their children and fled to his home country of Tunisia, Édeanna Johnson-Chebbi will learn whether she can bring her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter back home to America.

On July 10, a Tunisian court will make a custody ruling on whether Eslam and Zainab Chebbi — both born and raised in U.S. — can return to the country with their mother.

Before being taken to Tunisia, the children attended schools in Oakton — Eslam at  and Zainab at , both on Hunter Mill Road. They've been in Tunisia since November, when their father, Faical Chebbi, violated U.S. custody orders prohibiting him from taking them out of the country.

After an FBI investigation, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia charged Faical Chebbi with international parental kidnapping. Chebbi has also been listed on the wanted list for Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization.

According to an FBI affidavit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Chebbi picked up his two children Nov. 11 for a weekend visit as part of an Oct. 26 custody order from the Circuit Court for Prince George's County — the same court that granted the divorce of Faical Chebbi and Édeanna Johnson-Chebbi in January 2011.

Johnson-Chebbi said she received a phone call from her ex-husband Nov. 12, during which he said, "This is the worst phone call of your life. I have the kids, we're in Tunisia,"

Chebbi was able to obtain Tunisian birth certificates and passports for his two children through the Tunisian Embassy, said Johnson-Chebbi, a Fairfax resident who has accused Tunisian officials of enabling the kidnapping.

"I had full legal and physical custody by a mutual, consensual agreement and [the embassy] had documents of that. And protective orders. It's like they just didn't care," Johnson-Chebbi said .

Despite an initial hesitance to travel to Tunisia to regain custody of her children, Johnson-Chebbi found it necessary to work from the North African country to work through its legal system and to visit with her children. She has been in Tunisia since Jan. 18.

A page about child custody in Tunisia on the U.S. State Department website says while a parent can request that a foreign child custody order — such as one from the U.S. — be recognizied in Tunisia, enforcement of it "will result only if the custody order conforms with Tunisian child custody law."

"Therefore, as a practical matter, foreign child custody orders are not generally recognized in Tunisia, and the parent must seek legal representation in Tunisia and file for custody in Tunisia," the page reads.

U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin, both Democrats from Maryland, have offered their support to Johnson-Chebbi. Mikulski discussed the case with senior officials within the Tunisian government, Mikulski's office confirmed today.

Before Johnson-Chebbi left for Tunisia, and in the time she's been in the country,  in Washington, D.C., to demand justice for Johnson-Chebbi and her children, as well as other Tunisian families in the U.S. going through a similar situation.

"Parental child abductions to Tunisia are increasing by the month. This judgment will affect many families suffering these heinous acts for years to come," Johnson-Chebbi said in July 8 statement.

Though her ex-husband has allowed Johnson-Chebbi to visit with Eslam and Zainab on a fairly regular basis for the past six months, he has prevented her from being alone with both of them at the same time.

"The impact of being here and their ever growing awareness of the truth is quite apparent at this point," Johnson-Chebbi wrote in a statement to her supporters July 8. "My only desire and goal is to have these babies home in the USA and to let the healing process begin. We all need and deserve it."

Johnson-Chebbi has chronicled her custody battle through Facebook, Twitter and her website.

NaimaNour July 16, 2012 at 06:21 PM
I congratulate you and your strengh to fight this situation. It takes a brave mother to win this unfair battle especially when being on his field. But as a Tunisian Woman and proud to be so; i know the Law is on your side and you will win this battle. Vive les femmes forte. Always on your side. Mrs Naima Nour
Lisa September 30, 2012 at 05:15 AM
You should consider getting a tunisian man to help you find your children. Offer him United States citizenship. You make that offer to one every man who lives next to an elementary school. You will see one man will come forward and tell you where your kids are. You will probably have every man in Tunisia hunting for your kids. Men in Tunisia will do anything for us citizenship. I wish you luck. God bless you.
Abp Worldgroup November 09, 2012 at 10:19 AM
“It is a great misconception that a child abducted by a parent is a safe child” - Martin Waage, ABP World Group Ltd. Tunisia is a nightmare for the left behind parents. They are not a member of the Hague convention, and any attempt to recover the children by using the legal system there fails.

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