The discovery of the girl, known as Maria, has riveted Greece and prompted thousands of calls with leads from across the world as authorities try to track down her real parents, as DNA tests have shown she was not born to the Romas.
The case has raised questions about whether children are being stolen to order and whether the couple were part of a wider child trafficking ring — in addition to deepening mistrust between the Roma community and the Greeks.
They were arrested after police, who raided a Roma camp in central Greece last week in search of drugs and weapons, found the girl with pale skin and blue eyes who did not resemble the family she was living with.
The couple, identified as Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, deny they snatched the girl and say they took her under their care after her mother handed the girl to them shortly after giving birth.
“It was an adoption that was not exactly legal but took place with the mother’s consent,” Constantinos Katsavos, one of the lawyers representing the 39-year-old man, told reporters, adding that is what the couple testified in court.
The Roma couple were to be held in custody pending trial after responding to charges of abduction and procuring false documents behind closed doors as more than a dozen policemen stood guard outside.
So far more than 5,000 people, from Texas to Sweden, have phoned the charity looking after Maria to offer clues or search for their missing children. Based on her characteristics, police believe Maria, who utters just a few words in Greek and Roma dialect, is eastern or northern European.
Parallels have been drawn to the case of Madeleine McCann, who vanished while on holiday in Portugal in 2007, when she was three, and Ben Needham, who disappeared on the Greek island of Kos in 2001, when he was a toddler.
In the sunny, bustling square outside the court in the city of Larissa where the Roma couple faced magistrates, members of the Roma community gathered to show their support and said they were being unfairly stigmatised.
“They are completely innocent. These are all fairy tales and we’re going to prove it to society,” said Babis Dimitriou, head of the local Roma community.
“They accuse the Roma of everything — of stealing, of snatching kids. Do these things only happen among our race? This is a huge insult for us,” he said.
Police have found the woman had two different identification documents and other papers suggested the couple had up to 14 children, but six were registered as having been born within less than 10 months.
“It’s unfair,” a Roma woman who gave her name as Kyriaki said outside the court. “She raised this child since she was a baby.”
The ‘Smile of the Child’ charity, which is caring for the girl, said that a dental examination showed she is older than four, and is possibly five or six.
The charity has received more than 8,000 calls and thousands of emails about her from people from the US, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, Australia and South Africa.
“The case has touched a chord with lots of people from many countries,” Panayiotis Pardalis, a spokes- man for the charity, told The Associated Press yesterday. “This case is now giving hope to parents of missing children.”
He said the charity has received photos of missing children and potentially connected cases, “which we are forwarding to the police”, but mostly people were just conveying their concern.
Greek police have sought assistance from Interpol, the international police agency, which has 38 girls younger than six on its missing persons database. None of them, however, fit the mystery girl’s description.
The mother of Ben Needham, a British boy missing in Greece since 1991, said she was thrilled by the news of the mystery girl’s recovery. Her toddler was 21 months old when he vanished on the island of Kos.