BUCHAREST, Romania — A British couple accused of trying to smuggle a Romanian baby out of this country after paying $6,000 to shady brokers to obtain her insisted on the first day of their trial Wednesday that they didn't realize they were violating any law.
Bernadette and Adrian Mooney of Wokingham, England, are the first foreigners from among tens of thousands who have sought to adopt Romanian children to be charged with criminal conduct and threatened with jail time.
No verdict is expected in the case for at least two weeks as a lawyer for one of five Romanians being tried simultaneously with the Mooneys won an adjournment to call another witness on his client's behalf.
But the prosecution of the British couple is expected to have a chilling effect on the rash of illegal and questionable adoptions again plaguing Romania after a 1991 crackdown on the black market baby trade.
Madalina Buta, the senior of two judges who heard seven hours of testimony from the Mooneys and the Romanian defendants, read an indictment accusing the couple of willfully arranging an illegal adoption of 5-month-old Monica Baiaram in July.
The indictment claims the Mooneys administered a sedative to the baby to quiet her for the car trip across a remote border crossing, hid the child under a blanket in a cardboard box, and then, when border authorities discovered her behind the car's front seat, attempted to pass off the infant as a previously adopted 3-year-old listed on Mrs. Mooney's passport.
The Mooneys' claims of being unaware of official regulations appeared to be undermined by their having legally adopted another Romanian child in 1991.
Over the past three years, the number of abandoned children has dropped substantially in Romania, because birth control is now legal and available. Romanian adoption procedures also have been substantially restricted in an attempt to discourage illicit baby-trading, regulations that make the Mooneys ineligible for legal adoptions.
Romania has nevertheless retained an unseemly reputation as a country where children are easily available.
The overthrow of hard-line communism in Romania in December, 1989, revealed that at least 100,000 children had been abandoned to filthy and ill-supplied institutions by parents who had been forced to bear them by the tyrannical population policies of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. He wanted Romania to expand to 30 million inhabitants.
Altruistic rescues of sick and disabled infants from the appalling institutions quickly deteriorated into a flood of foreigners seeking Caucasian infants for uncomplicated adoptions. More than 10,000 children were handed over to foreign parents in 1990 alone.
Embarrassed by the worldwide image that Romanian children were for sale, the government imposed a moratorium on adoptions in 1991 and ordered a rewriting of legal procedures.
But amendments to the adoption laws have allowed courts at the local level to handle the cases, which has resulted in another rash of adoptions and allegedly inspired new networks of unauthorized middlemen who are paid to match cash-carrying foreigners with desperate parents and corrupt court officials.
While only 391 foreign adoptions were approved by local courts in all of 1993, the number through June of this year exceeds 850.
Western diplomats speculate that baby-smuggling and illegal payments to local authorities are also on the rise, although no reliable estimates are available.
Testimony in the Mooney case indicated that border authorities had been tipped off to the couple's activity, likely by a rival gang of baby brokers. Buta, the judge, said police had the couple under surveillance on July 5--the day they admit paying $6,000 to Ioan Batrana.
Batrana, who admitted to having arranged four previous adoptions, is charged with preparing fake adoption forms and bribing two other defendants to locate a baby whose natural parents would be amenable to selling the child.
Monica Baiaram, now 7 months old, has been transferred to a Bucharest orphanage pending completion of the trial.
Romanian legal experts speculated prior to Wednesday's start of testimony that the Mooneys are likely to draw a suspended sentence and expulsion, while the three Romanian middlemen are expected to be jailed.
The underage natural parents, both 17, are charged with endangering the child and stand to lose parental rights.
"The one good thing to come out of this tragedy is that of focusing on concern for children's welfare in Romania. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with adoption as long as it is done legally and with regulation," said Don McCready of the Romanian Orphanage Trust that assists with legal adoptions. "For too long people have come here thinking that they can take babies out of the country easily."
Although state homes still house tens of thousands of children abandoned during Ceausescu's tyrannical rule, most are above the age desired by prospective adoptive parents and many suffer disabilities stemming from botched abortion attempts and poor early childhood care.