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Madonna adoption case heard amid paternity dispute

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BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) -- Malawi's highest court heard arguments Monday on Madonna's bid to adopt a 3-year-old girl from the southern African country, as a dispute erupted over whether a man trying to stop the proceedings is the girl's father.

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Madonna was not at Monday's hearing at the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal, which was held in public after the judges reversed an earlier decision to hold a closed session.

The three judges adjourned after hearing from lawyers for the pop star and for two independent children's rights groups. The judges did not immediately set a date for the next session in the case, at which a decision was expected to be announced.

Madonna is fighting a lower court's decision that she cannot adopt Chifundo "Mercy" James because she had not been screened over time by Malawi authorities. The court said the rules were bent when Madonna adopted her son David from Malawi last year.

The pop star's Malawian lawyer, Alan Chinula, said he was "hopeful" the appeal would succeed, and argued the lower court had relied on outdated law to block the girl's adoption.

A renowned Malawi constitutional expert, Modechai Msiska, joined Madonna's legal team, arguing in court Monday that although the issue of residence was a factor, it would be unconstitutional if adhering to it negated "certain rights of the child."

Johns Gulumba, lawyer for Eye of the Child, an independent group that opposes the adoption, argued that following the rules kept the doors closed to potential child abusers. He added foreign adoptions should be the last resort, "when all other options, like foster parenting in country of residence, have failed."

Madonna found the girl in 2006 at Kondanani Children's Village, an orphanage in Bvumbwe just south of the commercial capital of Blantyre. It was the same year she adopted David, whom she found at another orphanage in the central Mchinji district.

On Sunday, a man told The Associated Press he was the girl's father, and has sought help from the Malawi Law Society to stop the adoption.

James Kambewa, a 24-year-old security guard, acknowledged he has never seen the child. According to court documents, she was placed in the orphanage when her 14-year-old mother died a few weeks after giving birth to her.

But Kambewa said he now wanted to claim custody of Chifundo.

"I may be poor, but I think I have what it takes to raise a daughter," he said. "I will fight the adoption."

The brother of the girl's mother told the AP the family does not know Kambewa.

"How can he claim he is the father when he hasn't been around all this time?" said Peter Baneti, who explained that the girl was put in the orphanage because there was no one to breast-feed the baby.

Baneti said he had agreed to the adoption on behalf of the family, and that Kambewa was "just an opportunist."

Madonna spokeswoman Liz Rosenberg said in an e-mail message she doesn't know if Kambewa is the father.

"All I know is that Mercy has been in an orphanage since the day she was born," Rosenberg said.

Kambewa, in an interview to be aired Monday on CBS' "The Early Show," said he has only seen the girl "in newspapers and TV -- not face to face." But he told CBS the girl "is a Malawian -- so (I) need her to grow as a Malawian as well with our culture."

On the show, Kambewa wore a necklace bearing the girl's name.

Madonna has founded a charity, Raising Malawi, that helps feed, educate and provide medical care for some of Malawi's more than 1 million orphans, half of whom have lost parents to AIDS.

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