MOSCOW (Reuters) - Gabriel, a 4-year-old Russian boy with Down Syndrome, can count in English the days before he joins the American couple he calls mama and papa. He doesn't know his adoption might never happen, thanks to a political tit-for-tat between Moscow and Washington.
Gabriel thinks he will soon fly to Idaho with Rebecca and Brian Preece, but the courts have halted the process, and President Vladimir Putin says Russian children should be brought up in Russia, as a matter of pride.
A new law stopping adoptions by Americans, which came into effect on January 1, too late to stop Gabriel's, the Preeces thought, was in response to U.S. legislation intended to punish Russians accused of violating human rights.
The problem, campaigners say, is that most orphans with disabilities never find parents in Russia. Often American or other foreign parents are their only hope for a life outside Russia's mostly poorly funded orphanages.
"We have his clothes all laid out on the bed upstairs that we were going to dress him in to pick him up, his little snow boots and his snow suit and his 12 layers of clothing to stay warm," says Rebecca Preece, her eyes brimming with tears.
"We talked about going for a car ride today and then getting on an airplane together," says the 34-year-old American from Boise, the Idaho capital, sitting in the lobby of a Moscow hotel with husband Brian.
The couple, who had carried out the legal procedures to adopt Gabriel, were on their way to court on Tuesday when they were told that their case was on hold.
"We were told the judge received something from the Supreme Court yesterday telling her not to sign the final decree until further instruction," Rebecca Preece said.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted as saying in late December that six children whose adoptions had been approved by courts would be able to go to the United States, while those whose cases were still pending would stay.
The Preeces, who own a fireplace business, were thought to be among the first group. Another couple, the Bonners, also thought they would soon be able to take home five-year-old Jaymi, who also has Down Syndrome. Their case was frozen, too.
"It seems that we are almost just numbers that are thrown out," said Jeana Bonner, who is bringing up two daughters in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her accountant husband.
"We just want to show that the children that we have grown to love, and all of the orphans here, they are not numbers, they're children. They love and deserve to be loved, and there are families that can provide that for them."
The two couples, who did not know each other before, have their own biological children at home. Both have a child with Down Syndrome.
More than 650,000 children are considered orphans in Russia, and 110,000 of them lived in state institutions in 2011, official data shows. There were about 7,400 adoptions by Russian families in 2011, compared with 3,400 adoptions by families abroad.
American families adopt more Russian children than those of any other country, with more than 60,000 cases since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, including 962 in 2011.
Tens of thousands of people protested against the law in Moscow on Sunday, saying vulnerable children were being used as pawns in a political battle.
"Legally, he's our child and he's stuck. He is a political hostage," said Brian Preece of Gabriel.
"They are not political pawns, they are kids. They need moms, they need dads, they need brothers and sisters," he said.
But Russian lawmakers said 19 Russian-born children adopted by Americans had died in the past decade.
"We don't want to sell our children or harvest their organs or any of these ridiculous rumours we hear about. We want to give a family to a child that needs one because we are members of a family and we know what that means, and that's all we want," Rebecca Preece said.
"We are extremely, extremely heartbroken. Our son was expecting us to come today. He knows he is being adopted into a family. He calls me 'mama' and my husband 'papa' ... Politics mean nothing to us; our families are what are important, and we are just trying to complete the process," she added.
The two mothers said they would stay in Moscow to fight to take the children home.
"I wasn't planning on this situation. This wasn't a thought last week," said Brian Preece. "I planned on being in a pool with them tonight, swimming with them. That's what I was planning."
BUILDING A BOND
Both Gabriel and Jaymi were given up by their biological parents and have met their adoptive families several times in orphanages in Moscow.
"It's something that starts slow. When you first see their picture, you start imagining them in your life and your family and opening your heart to them," said Jeana Bonner.
"It's a very vulnerable place to be, to say, 'We're going to love you', and even though we don't know the end result yet, we still are going to do that. And the more we visited her, every time we came back, that grew and grew," she added.
The Preeces hope they will still be able to tell Gabriel on Wednesday that they will be together soon.
"We'll just let him know that we are still here, we're still his mama and papa, and we just have to wait a little while for that plane, right?" said Rebecca Preece.
(Additional reporting Ludmila Danilova; Editing by Will Waterman)