Cross-border custody drama set to resume in Austrian court

Allegations of kidnapping and national legal bias take centre stage as retrial in ‘Oliver’ custody feud gets underway

The custody battle over Oliver, a boy caught in the middle of an international dispute between his Danish father and Austrian mother, is due to resume tomorrow in the Austrian city of Graz. 

The trial is the latest instalment in a dispute that has been going on for years. The boy’s parents had been living together in Denmark, until the boy’s mother, Marion Weilharter, took him to Austria in July 2010, where she says she was given sole custody by that country’s authorities. 

Danish courts, however, ruled in favour of the boy’s father, Thomas Nørgaard Sørensen.

In September of last year, Sørensen received a one-year suspended prison sentence for abducting Oliver and bringing him back to Denmark. He travelled to Austria last April and grabbed Oliver out of Weilharter’s car as she dropped him off at kindergarten. 

In Weilharter’s version of the story, she alleges that a co-conspirator held her down while Sørensen grabbed Oliver and subsequently drove him back to Denmark. 

Sørensen vehemently denies Weilharter was restrained in any way.

“She says that to make things sound more dramatic than they were,” he wrote in an email to The Copenhagen Post.

The criminal court in Graz convicted Sørensen of unlawful imprisonment, child abduction and aggravated assault. The case is being retried after Austrian authorities declared the original proceedings a mistrial.

The retrial was supposed to get underway in April, but was postponed after Sørensen failed to show up, saying he was afraid he would be arrested by the Austrian authorities if he did so.

Speaking with The Copenhagen Post, Weilharter said she believed Sørensen would show up.

“It is in his best interest,” she said. “He has been convinced that his presence is needed and has pledged to show up.”

Four other witnesses from Denmark are scheduled to take the stand. Three lawyers and a government official are alleged to have advised Sørensen that he was within his rights when he took Oliver from Austria and brought him to Denmark.

Weilharter has always maintained that the dispute should have never gone to court. She argues that children with an Austrian parent automatically receive Austrian citizenship – even if born outside the country – and that she understood that a child is granted Danish citizenship automatically only if born in Denmark to parents married at the time of birth. Weilharter and Sørensen were never married.

“Oliver is Austrian,” said Weilharter. “He was born to an unwed Austrian mother, and he has an Austrian passport and citizenship.”

Sørensen disagreed that bringing his son back to Denmark was an act of kidnapping. Danish officials declined to honour an international warrant for Sørenson’s arrest, saying that his actions were not illegal under Danish law.

“Oliver’s mother left the country with Oliver after I started custody proceedings,” Sørensen wrote. “Once Danish courts granted me custody, she herself was guilty of child abduction.”

Sørensen says Oliver is doing well and has regular phone contact with his mother. 

Weilharter, who has not seen her son in person for over a year, denied that was the case and said her son was suffering.

“Mr Sørensen has not answered my calls since February,” she said. “The Oliver that I have seen in videos appears to be regressing and is not the child that we know in Austria.”

Sørensen said Weilharter has declined his attempts to find a way for her to see her son.

“We have offered several mediation proposals, but she has refused,” wrote Sørensen.

Weilharter said that her son’s case could have international repercussions.

“If Oliver is not returned and Mr Sørensen is not found guilty of kidnapping, it gives Danish parents involved in cross-border relationships carte blanche to steal children all over Europe,” Weilharter said.

Sørensen countered that the mother’s claim of custody has never been officially recognised in Austria and that, under Danish law, Oliver was being illegally detained in Austria by his mother.

Weilharter, for her part, said archaic Danish laws that always favour the Danish parent are protecting Sørensen.

“I have no faith in the Danish legal system,” she said. “They put the rights of the abductor above those of the child.”

Weilharter was afraid one very important point was being lost in all of the legal wrangling.

“There is a child at the heart of this. Oliver. He was happy in Austria and was forced to hear his mother scream while his father pulled him out of her car,” she said. “He is my son, and I will not stop fighting until he is returned.”