The well-to-do Egyptian grandmother convicted and jailed last year for helping kidnap her grandson from the United States to Cairo was released from prison Thursday and set to be deported.
Afaf Nassar Khalifa, 61, was serving a sentence that had been reduced from 10 years to three for the 2001 abduction of Adam Shannon, now 7 years old.
But during her parole hearing last month, the judge reduced Khalifa's three years to 18 months, saying the crime she'd committed was nonviolent and victimless because it was kidnapping by a relative.
The child's American father, Maryland resident Michael Shannon, had full custody of Adam when Khalifa and her daughter, Shannon's ex-wife Nermeen Shannon, took the boy and his younger brother Jason, now 3, in August 2001.
"I'm not happy with it," Mr. Shannon, 43, said of the decision to release and deport his former mother-in-law. "It's frustrating. I just keep moving forward."
Khalifa was picked up at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (search) at 10 a.m. Thursday by two immigration officials, the prison told Mr. Shannon. She was to be taken to the airport, where she was to board a plane to Cairo.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, her attorney, William C. Brennan, declined to comment on the latest developments.
At the time of the kidnapping, Mr. Shannon, a computer programmer who lives in Millersville, Md., had custody of Adam, and Mrs. Shannon, 35, had custody of Jason. The children, then 5 and 1, were with their mother for a week-long unsupervised stay while their grandmother visited from Egypt, but during the visit, the women flew with the boys from New York to Cairo.
Mrs. Shannon has remained in Egypt since taking the boys, but Khalifa was arrested when she made a return trip to the states after the kidnapping. Court papers show the mother lost custody of both boys during the divorce proceedings because of child abuse charges and allegations of problems with alcohol.
Adam and Jason are still presumably in Egypt, though Mr. Shannon hasn't seen his sons since 2001 and said his ex-wife won't give him any information about them.
"She won't tell me where he is, when he gets out of school," said Mr. Shannon of his older son. "There have been no photos, no phone conversations. ... My attorney in Egypt and the State Department both cannot confirm to me that Adam and Jason are alive."
An English-speaking woman answering the phone at the Khalifa house in Cairo this week said Mrs. Shannon was not at home. Last year, she told The Baltimore Sun that Adam was enrolled in an American school in Cairo and Jason had a private nanny. She said the children were "adapting well," the newspaper reported.
American authorities have a warrant out for Mrs. Shannon's arrest because she is harboring the children overseas in violation of a number of court orders.
Khalifa will also not be able to return to the U.S. without being arrested once she's deported.
Mr. Shannon last spoke to Adam just after Khalifa's conviction in January 2003.
"He called saying, ‘I hate you. You put Fu-Fu [the Arabic word for Grandmother] in prison,'" he said. "I could hear somebody whispering to him about what to say."
In his fight to get his boys back, Mr. Shannon has hired well-known attorney Jeffery Leving (search) of Chicago, who made headlines when he returned 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez of Cuba to his biological father in 2000.
Leving and another lawyer at his firm, Andrey Filipowicz, are acting as co-counsel with high-profile Cairo attorney Dr. Nabil Hilmy (search) to get the Egyptian courts to honor the U.S. custody agreements.
Leving is frustrated at Khalifa's release from prison and at the fact that the U.S. State Department (search) doesn't seem to be able to get Mr. Shannon's sons back.
"A crime continues to be committed in Egypt until those children are returned," said Leving. "This is deplorable. It's a shame that we won't protect our own citizens and their children."
No Middle Eastern country, including Egypt, has signed the Hague Convention's international abduction treaty (search) — designed to prevent the wrongful kidnapping of a child.
That makes it tricky for the U.S. federal government to get Adam, Jason and the 10,000 other American children who have been victims of international kidnappings back home. There is also no extradition treaty between the United States and Egypt.
Many have blasted the State Department for not doing enough for its citizens — including its littlest ones like Adam and Jason. Not only have the boys not been returned to the parent who has full custody of them, but the State Department hasn't performed the required visits to check on the children because the Khalifa family has refused their requests, according to Leving and Mr. Shannon.
"The victims of crimes have less protection than the perpetrators," Leving said. "He doesn't know whether his children are alive or dead and neither do I. This is unconscionable."
The U.S. embassy also cannot guarantee the safety of either Mr. Shannon or Leving if they were to go to Egypt to check on the situation themselves, according to Leving.
"I was advised not to attend [the custody hearing] because I'm a U.S. citizen and if I do attend, I was told I would likely come back in a body bag," Leving said. "Something doesn't add up here."
Mr. Shannon and others close to the case have said they are convinced that the powerful, well-connected Khalifa family's friends — who include Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (search) — have been the reason for Mrs. Khalifa's sentence reductions and ticket back home.
The custody hearing in Cairo is set for June 3. Mr. Shannon has also filed a civil suit against the Khalifa family.