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Tuesday, 15 February, 2000, 13:11 GMT
Searching for Sasha: transcript
This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's Searching for Sasha programme broadcast on 15 February.
Presenter Jane Franchi: Not for the first time Fiona Cameron is the subject of newspaper headlines.
The bitter battle over the custody of her two daughters was fought acrimoniously in courts in France and Scotland in the glare of cross Channel media attention.
Three years on, the publicity could help. The photograph of her nine-year-old daughter, Sasha, on the front page of a French daily could jog a memory here. Sasha disappeared in France.
Her father didn't return her to Scotland at the end of a holiday. That was seven months ago. Fiona has the law on her side. But the law has been powerless in the search for Sasha.
Presenter: Far away from south-west France, Portmahomack, in Easter Ross, Sasha's home. Just over a year ago she was one of the performers in the primary school Christmas concert.
She wasn't here with her mother and her brother Hamish for the lighting of the village tree this Christmas. But she was remembered.
Portmahomack has its own symbol for Sasha - yellow ribbons, and not only as decorations for the Christmas tree.
The village is festooned with the fluttering ribbons which have become synonymous with coming home. It's a close-knit community and everyone, it seems, wants news of Sasha.
Fiona chats to villagers. . .
Fiona Cameron: At first when I went out one morning when Sasha was deemed as missing and I put one up at the school because I was having to take the children to the school every morning, it just seemed to strange for her not to be there.
And it was just really a symbol of her not being there, and that we were thinking of her. And then the community really took it on board and everybody started putting up yellow ribbons in all the places she used to walk and play.
Presenter: Was it specific to her in any way?
Fiona: Yes, she loved it... she loved dressing up, and she loved putting ribbons in her hair, and she loved yellow, she loved sunflowers and she loved yellow ribbons, and all in all it's the ideal symbol for her.
Presenter: Fiona married Robert Cameron in 1986. From a Scottish family, he spent his childhood in Australia.
He's an archaeologist and the couple met on an archaeological dig.
They had three children, Sasha, two years younger than her sister, Rachael.
By the time Hamish was born in 1993 according to Fiona the marriage was already rocky. Robert announced it was time for a change.
Presenter: He saw a television programme one night about houses in France, and just decided that that's what we would do, and there was really no turning it around.
Fiona: Em, I was very worried because he didn't have any business connections or any kind of way of making a living in France.
But, by that time I really didn't have a voice at all within any of the decision-making, or the marriage.
Presenter: It was supposed to be a fresh start for the troubled couple. A new home near the tiny village of St Ciers in rural south-west France. The family moved here in September 1993. But after just three weeks there was another row. Robert told Fiona and the children to leave. They returned to Scotland. Robert remained here in France.
Fiona came to live in Portmahomack, and it was here the following year that there was another attempt at reconciliation. It failed. Just before Christmas 1994 Robert decided he'd return to the house in France with the girls, leaving Hamish with his mother. A demoralised Fiona agreed providing she could go and see her daughters.
Fiona: I tried to go and visit them, I made arrangements to go and visit them. I just wasn't allowed to.
Presenter: Who didn't allow you to?
Fiona Robert. He said I couldn't come.
Presenter: Fiona didn't see Rachael and Sasha for three months. Only when Robert Cameron brought them on a visit to England was she reunited with them. She was to take the girls out for the day and return them in the evening. Instead, she drove them north to Portmahomack. In effect, she abducted them.
BBC news bulletin.....
Fiona Henderson: A mother at the centre of a bitter international custody battle has narrowly avoided being sent to jail.
David Miller: Fiona and Robert Cameron have been fighting for custody in courts in Scotland and France for the last two years.
Presenter: It was a long and acrimonious custody battle. Of ruling, appeal, and counter appeal. The Court of Session decided that the dispute should be dealt with by the French courts, and that the girls should live with Robert in France until it was resolved. Fiona refused to hand them over. Once again, she ran off with them and went into hiding.
BBC news bulletin...
David Miller: In court Fiona Cameron's decision to disobey an earlier court ruling to hand over her daughters was condemned by the Judge, Lord Hamilton.
Presenter: She'd broken the law, was in contempt of court, and narrowly escaped a prison sentence. Media interest was intense. Sasha was six at the time.
Sasha: I want to live here because it's much better here than in France, because I can't speak the language, and they had a horrible school.
Fiona: All I ever wanted was a custody hearing to get divorced. I didn't want to go into hiding. I didn't want to run. I just wanted peace in our lives as a family. I wanted, obviously I wanted my children with me. I really believed that that was the best place for them, I still do. I didn't even want to stop contact with him. All I wanted was just a normal divorce and custody hearing, and to come out at the end of it and start our lives without the kind of stresses we've been living under.
Presenter: It was to this court, the Palais de Justice in Angoulême, that Fiona was repeatedly ordered to return for custody hearings. She did so several times staying at secret addresses nearby. On one occasion after an interim custody hearing she and her two daughters fled away from the court, and away from Robert Cameron, who was waiting in the square nearby.
Finally, in this tortuously long legal battle, in February 1997 Fiona was awarded custody of the children while the divorce proceedings continued. That custody decision was confirmed when the divorce was finalised in May last year.
At last in Portmahomack there was the peace and stability Fiona has craved for her three children, apart from one anxiety.
The court had ordered that Rachael and Sasha should spend part of their school holidays with their father, and his new partner, Jenni Carter, in France. Always fearful of what he would do Fiona arranged for the visits to be organised through the local Children's Panel.
Last July, as agreed, she put the girls on a flight for France for a fortnight's holiday. Their father and Jenni Carter were taking them to Euro Disney.
Rachael: I was OK about it. Sasha was a bit upset. And mum was very, very upset about letting us go, but she had to anyway.
Presenter: After only three days, Rachael, unexpectedly arrived back. She'd had a row with her father. And Robert, who supposedly adored his eleven-year-old daughter, had taken her to Paris Airport and left her with airport staff who'd put her on a flight home. Rachael last saw Sasha as she left for the airport.
Rachael: Well, she didn't want to come with me... she didn't really want anything to... say to me.. she just said goodbye.... well she didn't really even say goodbye, she was just beside Jenni and just waved at me.
Presenter: How did that make you feel?
Rachael: A bit upset because me and Sasha are quite good friends.
Presenter: The last time Fiona spoke to Sasha, the nine-year-old was on a mobile phone.
Fiona: She was in the middle of a Disney parade. Her last words were: "Mummy, please don't go, don't go", and I said: "Well I have to go Darling", and that's the last thing she ever said to me.
Presenter: The end of any contact, the beginning of a nightmare. Although Sasha wasn't due home for another ten days Fiona became increasingly convinced that Robert wouldn't return her. Worries that were concerned by a letter he wrote to the local Children's Panel. Nineteen pages long, most of it dismissive of Fiona's ability as a mother, and his justification for not returning Sasha.
Words of letter: "I'm concerned enough not to have Sasha subjected to the irrationality of the household in Portmahomack, and I have no choice but to offer her a more rational environment in which to live. Sasha is safe, properly housed, and her educational needs well catered for."
Fiona: I then got in touch with somebody I know in France who made some inquiries for me. And we found out that the property that they had been living in and given as their address to the Children's Panel had been sold two months prior to the children leaving, and that they had told locals they were going to, among other places, to Australia. Naturally enough I assumed in the situation that immediate action would be taken to try and trace her, and try and find her. Em, it wasn't to be.
Presenter: A frantic session of phone calls followed. Fiona contacted the local police. Robert, after all, had broken the law.
It seems not. Exactly. What he'd done was to disobey the instructions of a court. A fine line, but it's a line that makes his a civil offence, not a criminal one, and that limits the steps the police can take to trace him, and Sasha.
Fiona wanted to contact the French police - Interpol - but any contact with those authorities, she was told, had to come through Northern Constabulary. And they, with the advice of the Procurator Fiscal and the Crown Office, said they had no proof that a crime had been committed.
Supt Norman MacLeod (Northern Constabulary): We have no reason to believe that, in fact, a crime of abduction, or indeed any other harm has been committed, specially in this country.
And, because of that we are limited as to what authority we might act on. Robert Cameron is the natural father and he had access to his daughters. So it's very much on the civil side, in as much as that he was entitled to see his daughter when she was sent over to France, rather than being taken to France.
Presenter: So, it wasn't an abduction then?
Supt MacLeod: No, not within the law.
Presenter: But she hasn't been returned, and that, too, was an order of the court that although Robert Cameron was entitled to access visits during the summer that she would live with her mother in Portmahomack.
Supt MacLeod: His side is that she is well and that she is with him, and that's where she should be, rather than with the mother. I have to keep everything in balance. Firstly it concerns me that we haven't heard from Sasha. She hasn't come to light in any way, either in France or in the UK since she went across there.
Fiona: They said that it was only criminal if she was being held against her will. And we were then told that in fact what we would have to do is find her first, and the prove that her will hadn't changed in the interim period. Em, which was almost like a goal post shifting.
Presenter: Catch-22. Find her before you can prove a crime, but you can't use the law to find her. What the police could do, and did, was to put Sasha in the Missing Persons List almost immediately. Putting Robert on it would have meant that if he'd come into contact with the police anywhere in the UK, even for something as minor as a parking ticket, the authorities would have been alerted. But it was months before Robert was listed.
Supt MacLeod: This is now on since December, just before New Year.
Presenter: Why wasn't it done before?
Supt MacLeod: Simply because we had to pursue other lines of inquiry up until now. Obviously there was a few months had passed since she had reported. We had live lines of inquiry in order to trace him. It's not every person that we put on to a national broadcast obviously. Em, we had to ensure that indeed she was the legal wife of Robert Cameron.
Presenter: Frustrated by the police response, Fiona turned to the local Children's Panel. In September, almost two months after she'd gone missing, they issued a warrant for Sasha ordering her to appear at their next meeting. The warrant makes it clear that Sasha could be in danger, and that the 'callous and premeditated manner of her abduction gives rise to acute concern about Mr Cameron's state of mind.' Fiona had high hopes for the power of that warrant - they were dashed.
Fiona: Even after a warrant was issued for her return; even after authorities have gone through the motions that they're saying that she is officially in a dangerous situation, and officially at risk, we are not...still in the situation where anybody's actively searching for Sasha.
Presenter: Both France and the UK signed an international convention covering child abduction. In theory it enables a child to be returned home. In practice you must know where the child is before you can enact it. Another catch-22.
Alison Cleland (Child Law, Napier University): I think there's a loophole in that if you want any court to implement any order you have they must know exactly what you want them to do and where you want them to do it. So, you're always going to have to know where children are in order to return them. And that's a fact and a practical matter.
Presenter: It is also a fact that Robert and Sasha could be anywhere in the world. With so much going against her through official channels there's a call, out of the blue, through unofficial contact.
Fiona: Oh how interesting.
Presenter: A head teacher in England has had a mysterious woman on the phone. She wanted to enrol a young girl at his school.
Fiona: The woman, who wouldn't give her name, who said her daughter had just come to live with her, wouldn't give any details of the daughter, or the daughter's age, apart from she was in primary four. And when asked any further questions put the phone down, which he said at best was rude, it wasn't....it was a very kind of strange phone call. It was by no means a definite thing, but it's....it was the other background information I've got it's certainly a possibility.
Presenter: A glimmer.
Fiona: A glimmer, which is the first glimmer at all we've had. So I'm really very....I'd heartened by the possibility.
Presenter: The laughter, the hopes, the glimmer fade quickly. After a couple of weeks of inquiries the trail leads nowhere. Fiona decides she had to turn detective herself and go to France.
Fiona: I feel like I'm being put in a position where I'm having to be a detective. I find a seriously frightening situation. I feel I need professional help in the investigation as to what's happened to Sasha, and of course that just isn't being accessed to. So, short of sitting in Portmahomack and crying, and doing nothing, the only other alternative I have is actually to go and try and find her myself.
Presenter: Bordeaux. The last time Fiona was here both her daughters were with her. Sasha went on the carousel. Fiona's first call, a person she's never met, but who, since her first telephone call to him, has given her as much help as he is allowed - the British Consul General.
James Rawlinson (British Consul General in Bordeaux): It is very important to pursue the legal channel because even when Sasha is found you will then have to have the force of the law under the various conventions behind you to recover the child. There is no evidence that they've left France, and as far as I'm concerned, if they are still in the region it would be sensible to use the means at our disposal to try and ascertain their whereabouts.
Presenter: But those means are somewhat limited given the bureaucratic and complicated nature of the French legal system.
James Rawlinson: It's certainly not for me to circumnavigate, circumvent the legal process. There would be a grave danger that any attempt to do something of that kind could well compromise eventual settlement once Sasha is found of the custody case.
Presenter: Do you think you could have done more?
James Rawlinson: It's easy to be wise after the event. I'm not sure that we could have done.
Presenter: North then to Angoulême - centre of the Charente region, where Robert had lived, and where their long custody battle had been fought.
Martine Faury was Fiona's lawyer through that battle. Now she's acting for her again.
Martine and Fiona.....
Presenter: Here too, progress has been painfully slow as the French team waited to see what action the UK authorities were taking. But Martine does have news. She's just been given the date for a court action against Robert.
Martine and Fiona discussion.....
Presenter: It is the court in Angoulême which will decide whether Robert Cameron has committed, what in France, is a criminal offence. Translated it means 'the non return of a child'. If he doesn't appear at the hearing it's almost certain he'll be found guilty by default.
And according to Martine, that'll mean the French police can look for, and arrest him. After more than seven months Fiona won't be the only person searching for Sasha. A visit then to the police station near where Robert lived.
Fiona at police station.....
Presenter: No, they can't talk about the case because of the impending court action. Yes, they can confirm they'll start searching if Robert is found guilty. But, no, not yet. Until that verdict their hands are tied.
Precious time is slipping away. Fiona's search goes on. St Ciers, the village near the house she, Robert, and the family shared for just three weeks seven years ago.
But the town hall is open only two days a week. Today isn't one of them.
Even further into the country and the isolated house where they'd lived until Robert had forced them out. There's nobody there. And neighbour Jean Jacques can't help.
Fiona speaks to Jean Jacques....
Presenter: The post. Surely there must be a forwarding address. No. Any letters for Monsieur Cameron are marked 'return to sender'.
Back to Angoulême. The lawyer who acted for Robert during the custody battle says he's has no contact with his former client since last summer. But apparently Robert was planning legal, rather than illegal, action against the custody decision.
Maître Jean-Michel Camus (Robert Cameron's French Solicitor): After, when the divorce case will be over and finished, we'll start a new case to try to have with him, the children in his house, and so this is reason why I'm quite surprised to learn that he's gone - with the child, and give no news. It seems very, very strange.
Presenter: Fiona has one last place to try - Charme. This was where Robert and his new partner, Jenni Carter, had lived. She owned the bar here. And this was the address they'd given to the Children's Panel when the girls' holiday was being arranged. Fiona had such high hopes of picking up the trail here. Maybe one-time neighbour Bertrand Fradin knows where they went.
Bertrand: As for Cameron, before he disappeared he covered his tracks well by reeling off all sorts of ideas about where he was heading. He'd change his story according to who he was talking to. So he mentioned Australia, Sweden, USA and England. He made things up. And the children, I haven't seen the children for ages. It's unbelievable to be able to disappear like that these days. The bar, the café it doesn't exist any more. It went bust. Jenni sold the bar and the house.
Fiona: I really feel that the trail has just gone cold, and our chances of really getting any information that could have been quite valuable are diminishing. Yes, very disappointing in respect of information actually retrieved. However, one can only hope that after March, when the police can be engaged in the case properly, they can gather all this information. I hope that's what will happen.
Presenter: Could you have done more, quicker, to help Fiona?
Maître Martine Faury (Fiona Cameron's French Solicitor): I think you can always do things more quickly. But I thought Fiona was doing everything that had to be done on her side of the Channel, that something was happening and I ought to wait. I'm sorry now. I'd have been better to do something right away.
Presenter: How much time do you think has been lost?
Martine: I think about four to five months wasted.
Presenter: Does that make you feel angry?
Martine: Yes, I get the feeling we're not achieving anything.
Presenter: Now, back in Portmahomack, Fiona wants to make life as normal as possible for her two other children.
As she tries to get out of what appears to be a legal and bureaucratic black hole she blames the system which puts the law on her side, but doesn't give it the power to act on her behalf. And there's that constant, increasingly worrying question - Where is Sasha?
Hamish: Have you found Sasha yet, have you found Sasha yet?
Fiona: What I'm asking at the end of the day really doesn't matter. What matters is Sasha's rights. Sasha's being denied all contact with her family, her friends, her school which she's attended since primary one. That's what I'm asking the law to do. And that's what Sasha will be asking the law to do is Sasha had any voice in this situation at all, and she doesn't.
Presenter: Each night Fiona writes a letter to Sasha. She posts it in a box decorated with her daughter's special favourite - sunflowers. Each night the bundle grows bigger, and Fiona's heart grows heavier.
Fiona: To be in a situation when you don't know if you'll ever see them again, is....is just a living hell. And I miss her more than words can tell.
Fiona reads letter she writes to Sasha....
Dear Sasha I hope you're well and happy. Rachael was playing in her concert today. Hamish had to go to the doctor because he had a tummy ache. We all miss you so much and hope you are home very soon. Goodnight my little Darling. I love you very much. Mum.
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