Family back in focus over 'abduction' of toddler

WHEN little Rahma El-Dennaoui vanished from her Sydney home seven years ago, investigators immediately suspected her parents or extended family were involved.

Police initially focused on those closest to her, particularly her parents, Hosayn and Alyaa El-Dennaoui.

But detectives found no history of neglect, domestic violence, mental health issues or drug abuse. The El-Dennaouis' eight children at the time of the incident (Alyaa is now expecting her 13th) were well fed, well dressed, well behaved and always taken to the doctor when they were ill. Both mother and father were ''warm and open'' with police and appeared willing to assist the investigation.

Unsurprisingly, detectives quickly focused on other lines of inquiry. A suspected paedophile who lived near the El-Dennaouis' home in Lurnea became the prime suspect. But he was eventually ruled out. Investigators also travelled to Lebanon, following a lead that suggested a childless uncle may have been behind the abduction, but that theory and thorough searches of Department of Immigration records didn't amount to much.

At an inquest this week, Detective Sergeant Nicholas Sedgwick said a review of the investigation last year led him to believe the El-Dennaoui family were in fact involved in Rahma's death, the disposal of her body and the staging of the abduction on November 9 and 10, 2005.

During hearings at Glebe Coroner's Court in April, Hosayn and Alyaa marked different spots as to where Rahma had been sleeping in the living room before being taken into the bedroom and put next to her sisters about 2am. Hosayn said a large cable drum, which would have allowed someone to access the bedroom window, was placed there on November 9; Alyaa said it was done weeks before.

Police began to secretly record their phone calls, which were translated into English. The family talked in code and joked about claiming the reward money. In September, family members were brought in for questioning, simultaneously, to ''limit the continuous collusion''. Each was put back on the stand during hearings this month and last, where they were grilled on inconsistencies.

At the end of the inquest, Detective Sedgwick said he now believed Rahma was agitated and crying due to illness and Hosayn and Alyaa were responsible for her death. Other family members covered it up out of loyalty, he said.

But David Evenden, representing Hosayn, said there was nothing more than ''rumour and speculation''.

There was no forensic evidence of any violence, accident, mishap or subsequent clean-up in the house, nor were there records of panicked phone calls that would be expected in such a scenario.

Mr Evenden admitted police had uncovered some inconsistencies in the evidence, but he told the Deputy State Coroner Sharon Freund this was not enough to prove the family was involved in a ''cover-up''.

''Some of them provide a basis for suspicion - but even if one put them all together, they don't raise that suspicion above speculation,'' Mr Evenden said.

He asked Ms Freund to find that Rahma was abducted.

Counsel assisting the Coroner, Robert Bromwich, SC, urged an open finding, saying while there was evidence that pointed to an abduction, a body of material also suggested an abduction was staged as a cover-up.

Ms Freund will hand down her finding on Thursday.

The story Family back in focus over 'abduction' of toddler first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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