Spain custody battle sends mother Juana Rivas into hiding

By Guy Hedgecoe

image copyrightEPA
image captionThis picture of Juana Rivas was taken at an unknown location and released on 15 August

In Spain, the slogan "Juana is in my house" has gone viral.

You see it on social media and headlining blog posts. It has also been printed on posters in shop windows and demonstrators have been chanting it in the street.

Juana Rivas, the subject of that expression of solidarity, has become a cause celebre. But her whereabouts have been unknown for more than three weeks.

She was supposed to hand over her two children, aged three and 11, to their Italian father, Francesco Arcuri, in Granada on 26 July.

That followed a court order giving him custody of the boys, after Ms Rivas had taken them back to Spain from Italy last year without his consent.

image copyrightAFP
image captionJuana Rivas failed to turn up to the court hearing on 8 August, but the children's father Francesco Arcuri did

Ms Rivas and the children did not turn up for the handover and she then failed to appear for a court summons on 8 August.

The judge ordered her arrest and she could face a prison sentence of up to four years for abduction. She has not been seen in public since the July handover date.

Battle against gender violence

Ms Rivas has said that during their relationship Mr Arcuri abused her physically and psychologically and mistreated their older son, pointing to a three-month jail sentence her former partner received for domestic abuse eight years ago.

"A woman running away from terror to protect her children can't be deemed abduction," said a letter by Ms Rivas, read out at a demonstration to support her in Granada on Monday. It added that "an abuser never gives you permission to leave".

Campaigners have made Ms Rivas a symbol of Spain's battle against gender violence, which sees an average of 60 women killed each year by their partners or ex-partners.

But Francesco Arcuri insists he is the victim of a media frenzy that has distorted their relationship, cast him as the villain and deprived him of seeing his children.

How relationship turned sour

The couple met in 2004 in London where, according to Spanish media, a 23-year-old Ms Rivas was learning English and Mr Arcuri, who was 38, was managing a restaurant.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJuana Rivas took her children back to Spain in May 2016 from the family home in Sardinia

She had their first child in Spain in 2006, but three years later Mr Arcuri was found guilty of beating Ms Rivas repeatedly after she returned to their house in the early hours one morning.

Mr Arcuri now denies having committed any abuse, insisting he only pleaded guilty in order to avoid a lengthy legal battle and to be able to see his son. His guilty plea also meant he did not go to jail, as sentences of under two years in Spain do not usually lead to prison.

image copyrightAFP
image captionWhile Ms Rivas has attracted widespread support, Francesco Arcuri has also attracted protests in favour of joint custody

The couple subsequently reunited and moved to the small Sardinian island of San Pietro, where they ran a bed and breakfast. They had a second son, but their relationship fell apart again.

Ms Rivas has described herself as being trapped in the Italian countryside, living in fear of an abusive partner. In May 2016, she took the children back to Spain and their father has not seen them since. She then filed another domestic abuse claim.

'I am not the terrorist'

As well as sparking several demonstrations calling for Ms Rivas to be given sole custody of her children, the case has seen the premier of the southern region of Andalucía, Susana Díaz, get involved by offering legal support to her.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also appeared to take her side. "One has to take into account what has happened," he told reporters. "She had to go to Italy, had to return, she has been attacked twice, her husband has been convicted by the courts."

But Mr Arcuri, who claims his ex-partner was constantly out partying in San Pietro and leaving him to do most of the parental duties, says Spanish public opinion has unjustly turned against him.

A Swiss woman, identified as S.M, who was Mr Arcuri's partner for 10 years, has said she does "not believe for one second that he has mistreated his wife and kids".

Mr Arcuri has told Spanish media: "I am not the terrorist who is being talked about."

"I am a father with two judicial rulings in his favour, who for more than a year has not seen his children who were illegally kidnapped."

Domestic violence: Useful contacts

  • In UK: Domestic violence helpline - 0808 2000 247
  • Women's aid
  • In Spain: 24-hour domestic violence helpline 016
  • email address:
  • 24-hour helpline for mistreated women - (0034) 900 19 10 10

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