Serbia jailed three French nationals Thursday for kidnapping a toddler from a Belgrade street in a bizarre bid to use her DNA in a family dispute.
The trio snatched the two-year-old in 2015 because she bore a resemblance to the young daughter of one of the French women, who was involved in a bitter custody battle with her estranged partner, according to the verdict.
A source close to the inquiry said Emeline Oeillet, 27, plotted with her mother and step-father to submit the Serbian girl to paternity tests so that the DNA match would come back negative, allowing her to claim her ex-partner had not fathered their child.
Oeillet was handed a seven-year sentence for the kidnap, and her mother Alexia Branchu, 51, was jailed for nine years. Branchu's husband Sebastien, 46, was jailed for ten years.
The trio insisted they had the agreement of the Serbian toddler's family to "borrow" her, but this claim "of a pre-existing agreement with the parents of the Serbian girl was not proven", according to the judgement quoted by media.
"The telephones and computers of the accused were analysed and no trace of contact with the parents of the Serbian girl were discovered," said judge Dragan Milosevic.
The Serbian family's lawyer Natasa Jovicic said claims of an agreement "were not worthy of comment", adding: "From the point of view of the victims, no punishment is sufficient for someone who tries to harm your child."
According to the verdict, the French trio followed the toddler and her mother as they entered a Belgrade supermarket on March 13, 2015, and snatched the child as they came back onto the street.
"The accused tore the girl from the hands of her mother and violently pushed the mother to the ground," the judge said.
"They then put the child in their car where they changed her hairstyle, switched her clothes with others prepared in advance, and fled."
The three were intercepted by Serbian police several hours later, on the motorway heading towards Croatia.
The two women will appeal their sentences, their lawyer Irina Borovic said. Sebastien Branchu did not exercise his right to defend himself.