A Malawian court has delayed its ruling on Madonna's attempt to adopt a four-year-old orphan, while human rights groups in the impoverished southern African country accused the American pop star of "bullying" her way past the law.
Madonna went to court in the capital Lilongwe yesterday to sign papers that would have allowed her to take Chifundo ("Mercy") James back to the US. But Judge Esme Chombo, hearing the case behind closed doors, delayed ruling until Friday.
Malawi usually requires an assessment period of between 18 months and two years before a child can be adopted, and Madonna has been accused of using her wealth and celebrity status to circumvent the rules.
She faced similar allegations when she began the process of adopting her son David Banda, now three, in 2006, and has since compared the storm of criticism to the pain of giving birth. The singer arrived in Malawi by private jet on Sunday and has refused to comment on her plans.
Malawi's Human Rights Consultative Committee is considering a challenge to the adoption. "We feel Madonna is behaving like a bully," said the group's chairman, Undule Mwakusungura. "She has the money and the status to use her profile to manipulate, to fast-track the process."
Watching outside the courthouse, one man said: "We are blessed for what Madonna is doing here. That baby is going to have the advantages of going to school and of becoming someone. Here it is very difficult."
Malawi faces huge problems. Life expectancy is 44 years and 14 per cent of adults have HIV. The UN estimates half of the one million Malawian children who have lost one or both parents did so to Aids. Mercy James was the daughter of a single mother who died shortly after her birth, said her uncle, John Ngalande. Her father is believed to still be alive, although the girl has been living in the same orphanage where Madonna found David in October 2006.
Yesterday, David spent several hours with his father, Yohane Banda, at the luxury tourist lodge booked by Madonna and her entourage. "I was very happy to see him," said Mr Banda, who added that David had not recognised him because the two had not seen each other since the boy was taken back to London aged 13 months.
"He asked me who I was. When I told him 'I'm your daddy', he looked surprised." The father and son communicated through an interpreter as Mr Banda speaks no English and David does not speak the local language, Chichewa.
The boy's mother died when he was a month old, and, believing he would be unable to care for him single-handed, Mr Banda put David into an orphanage to maximise his chances of survival.
Madonna's adoption of David was finalised last year. If her second adoption is approved, she will be a mother of four. She has an eight-year-old son, Rocco, with former husband Guy Ritchie, and a 12-year-old daughter, Lourdes.