Tuesday, April 29, 2014

U.S. Couple Denied Permission to Leave Qatar While Appeal is Pending


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An American couple in Qatar convicted of child endangerment in the death of their adopted daughter from Africa, and not the original charge of murder, were denied permission on Monday to return home while their appeal is pending, and they faced the new possibility that Qatari prosecutors would seek to charge them with human trafficking.
Defense experts expressed shock at the developments, which came at the first hearing in the appeal by the couple, Matthew and Grace Huang of Los Angeles, who were sentenced to three years in prison last month. They have asserted their innocence in a case that has come to symbolize what critics call the arbitrary and opaque system of Islamic justice in the criminal courts of Qatar, the affluent Persian Gulf emirate that has sought to portray itself as a progressive beacon of Middle East multiculturalism.
On the contrary, the Huangs and their defense lawyers have argued, the prosecution has revealed ingrained prejudices about multiracial families and adoption by having assumed that the parents, who are of Asian descent, had no legitimate reason to have children who are of African descent.
The State Department has expressed concern about the fairness of the case. The Huangs have been supported by the California Innocence Project, a group that helps with the defense of what it considers unjust prosecutions, and by the David House Agency, a Los Angeles group that assists Americans trapped in legal crises overseas.
The couple, who were living in Qatar because Mr. Huang was working on an engineering project, were arrested in January 2013 after their daughter, Gloria, 8, adopted from Ghana, was pronounced dead at a hospital after having not eaten for four days. Prosecutors said then that they suspected that the Huangs were child traffickers who had abused the child by starving her with the intent to sell her organs. The couple said she suffered an eating disorder, and defense witnesses said she had been active and happy the day before she died.
The cause of Gloria’s death was never established.
The defendants, who also had two adopted boys from Africa, spent nearly a year in prison before the lower-court judge agreed to release them on their own recognizance in November but barred them from leaving the country. Their boys were permitted to go home with Mrs. Huang’s mother.
Under Qatari law, both the defense and prosecution can appeal the verdict, which was announced last month. But it was only last week that the defendants learned about the lower court’s determination that the original murder charge was rejected for lack of evidence. Instead, the court convicted them on the lesser charge of endangering a child under 16, which carries a three-year prison sentence when the defendant is the child’s guardian. Defense lawyers said they were baffled by that charge as well.
The prosecution signaled its intention to possibly seek child-trafficking charges after the defense lawyer, Sami Abu Shaikha, requested that the appeals court suspend the couple’s imprisonment until the appeals process was completed. The lead prosecutor objected, saying the court must make an example of the Huangs.
The judge allowed the couple to remain free within Qatar but rejected their request to fly home.
“We are extremely disappointed the court did not give us permission to leave the country so we can go see our sons,” Mr. Huang said in a statement after the hearing. “We want this all to be over.”
It was unclear how the prosecution could possibly prove a human trafficking case, given that no evidence of such a crime was presented at the original trial. Members of the Huangs’ defense team said such an intention by the prosecution further revealed what they called the flaws in Qatar’s judicial process.
“From the very beginning, the Islamic court in Qatar has shown they do not understand why an Asian-American couple would adopt an African child,” said Eric Volz, managing director of the David House Agency, in a statement. “It is outrageous and backward. Every American should beware of traveling to Qatar.”
The appeals court is scheduled to announce whether it has accepted the prosecution’s appeal on May 11, and will hear the defense’s appeal on June 16.

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