Spanish 'charity scam' parents quizzed on sexual exploitation claims

Marga Garau, the wife of Fernando Blanco who was arrested for a scam using his young daughter's rare disease, leaves the Seu d'Urgell court in Lleida, northeastern Spain, on Jan 13, 2017.
Marga Garau, the wife of Fernando Blanco who was arrested for a scam using his young daughter's rare disease, leaves the Seu d'Urgell court in Lleida, northeastern Spain, on Jan 13, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

BARCELONA (AFP) - A Spanish couple arrested for allegedly using the rare illness of their daughter in a charity scam now find themselves investigated for sexually exploiting the 11-year-old girl.

Fernando Blanco, a former DJ on the holiday island of Ibiza, and his wife Margarida Grau were surrounded by reporters on Friday as they appeared in court in the mountain town of Seu D'Urgell in the northwestern region of Catalonia for questioning.

The couple were summoned after police found naked pictures of their daughter Nadia Nerea, who they say suffers from a rare genetic disorder called trichothiodystrophy, on a USB drive that belonged to Blanco.

Catalan television station TV3 reported that one image showed the couple having sexual intercourse in front of Nadia. Other pictures of Nadia contained "sexual content", the station said without elaborating further.

The couple told the judge the pictures were taken to track the progress of their daughter's disease, which in mild cases only gives patients brittle hair but, when severe, causes delayed development, intellectual disability, and recurrent infections that can lead to death at an early age.

"There is nothing special about the pictures. There is no pornographic, sexual or exploitative content," the couple's lawyer Alberto Martin told reporters.

The explanation did not convince the judge who opened an investigation into the couple for "exhibitionism, sexual provocation and sexual exploitation".

The pair were already under investigation since December for fraud after police accused them of spending nearly 600,000 euros of the 918,000 euros they had raised for their daughter's treatment.

They allegedly used the money for their own personal expenses, including a car, clothes, travel and luxury watches.

The couple established a charity in 2009 and, in addition to channelling requests for donations through the media, have held fundraising events and collected money via a dedicated Facebook page.

Nadia's story became a media sensation thanks to the efforts of her father to publicise the case.

The 52-year-old Blanco, who has a prior conviction for fraud, told journalists he had travelled the world in search of a cure, including meeting an eminent geneticist who lived in a cave in Afghanistan.

In late November he claimed to need money for a pioneering operation in Houston, Texas, that could save his daughter's life.

But a week later the Spanish media outlets El Pais and Hipertextual cast serious doubt on the story.

They reported there was no proof of his travels, and that neither the hospital in Houston nor its alleged pioneering treatment, even existed. Moreover, the supposed genetics specialist who conceived it, Edward Brown, did not appear in any official registry.

A judge launched a probe for alleged fraud and Blanco was detained after he fled a police check near the border with France.

After questioning both parents, the judge kept the father in jail without the right to bail. The mother, Grau, was released.

The judge removed Nadia from the couple's custody. The girl now lives with an aunt.

The case has dominated headlines in Spain and raised questions about how many media outlets promoted the story without verifying basic facts.

"As it was a very human story, somewhat weepy that centred on a sick girl, the media ploughed ahead without thinking," said Marcel Mauri, a professor of journalism ethics at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University.

The head of the deontological commission of the Federation of Press associations, Rafael de Mendizabal, agrees.

"The necessary precautions were not taken to avoid telling lies. This is what happens due to an excess of generosity, for kindness, for believing that a father can't do that," he said.

Charities say the case has prompted a drop in donations for research on various diseases. A platform representing health charities issued a statement recommending people only give money to supervised projects and not to campaigns carried out by individuals.