Americans Jailed for Months in Qatar After Daughter’s DeathBy RICK GLADSTONE Published: November 4, 2013
Matthew and Grace Huang, an American couple with three adopted children from Africa, lived as a family in the affluent Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar starting in July 2012. For most of the time since then, the parents have been imprisoned there, accused of starving their 8-year-old daughter to death with the intent of selling her organs.
David House Agency
Grace and Matthew Huang with their daughter, Gloria, who died in January at age 8, and one of their sons, Emmanuel.
The Qatari authorities have repeatedly denied the Huangs’ application for bail, and only in the last few weeks have they permitted Mrs. Huang’s mother to take the surviving children, two boys, home to the United States. Throughout the four pretrial hearings, lawyers for the defendants, who have asserted their innocence, have not been permitted to present their side of the story to the presiding judge. On Wednesday, they are scheduled to get that opportunity.
There is no dispute that their daughter, Gloria, died on Jan. 15 after she had not eaten, perhaps for days. But the Huangs and their supporters have asserted that she had an underlying eating disorder that the prosecution has ignored. They have described the case as an egregious combination of flawed or nonexistent evidence, ethnic prejudice and extreme cultural misunderstandings in a host country where multiracial families are an anomaly and adoption is an alien concept.
The Qatar police investigators, in their report of Gloria’s death, found the family’s circumstances highly suspicious, and wrote that the girl had been emaciated. The defendants, they concluded in an investigation, “participated with others in child trafficking, most likely to either sell their organs or to conduct medical experiments on them.”
The Christianity practiced by the Huangs may also have raised the suspicions of the police, who noted in their reports that all three children had been home-schooled by their mother.
Questioned in a February pretrial hearing about the proof of child trafficking, one investigator responded that “the adoption process consists of searching for children who are good-looking and well-behaved, and who have hereditary features that are similar to those of the parents,” according to a translation of the court’s Arabic transcript. “But the children connected to this incident are all from Africa, and most of the families there are indigent.”
The case has raised questions about the justice system in Qatar, a close American ally, an aspiring center of a modern-day tolerant Islamic society and the first Arab country chosen to host soccer’s World Cup, in 2022. Adding to the pressure on Qatar, the case has been taken up by the California Innocence Project
, a San Diego-based group that seeks to publicize what it regards as wrongful imprisonments, and the David House Agency
, a Los Angeles-based group that specializes in helping clients entangled in complicated legal crises abroad.
Consular officials from the United States Embassy have also repeatedly inquired about the status of the case, a State Department official said, in what appeared to be a subtle source of additional pressure.
“The prosecution has been presenting its evidence without any input from our side,” Alex Simpson, a trial lawyer assisting in the defense of the Huangs, who are from Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview. “You’ve got these people who have been sitting in jail for almost a year, and based on stuff they’re not entirely sure about — where did it come from? We’re going to be explaining to the court our side of the story for the first time.”
He called the incarceration a nightmare for the Huangs, saying, “It’s almost kind of like Kafka.”
Telephone and email efforts to reach the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Doha, the capital, were not successful. There has been no indication that the prosecution or the presiding judge, Abdullah al-Emady, is preparing to drop the case or even consent to bail for a crime that carries the death penalty in Qatar.
It was the World Cup that took the Huangs and their children to Qatar in 2012. Mr. Huang, an engineer, was recruited for a major infrastructure project to prepare for the soccer tournament.
The defense contends that Mr. Huang, 37, and Mrs. Huang, 36, had been trying to manage a severe eating disorder with Gloria, who had spent a hungry childhood in Ghana. They said she would on occasion go for days without food, sometimes binging on junk food, or rummaging garbage, or stealing food that she would hide in her room. Such disorders are not uncommon among adopted children from deprived countries, American adoption experts say. Defense witnesses say Gloria was happy and active the day before her parents found her in her room on Jan. 15. She was pronounced dead after they rushed her to a hospital. But the cause of death is a central matter of dispute.
The Qatar medical examiner, Dr. Anis Mahmoud Khalifa, concluded that she had died of starvation and dehydration, but provided no photographs or laboratory tests to substantiate the finding.
A pediatric forensic pathologist retained by the defense, Dr. Janice Ophoven, who specializes in child starvation cases, ruled out that possibility and noted that the parents had never been questioned about Gloria’s eating habits.
“One cannot medically diagnose that a child was intentionally starved to death if the child was seen functioning and walking just a day before dying,” Dr. Ophoven wrote in a statement to the court that the defense planned to submit on Wednesday. “This fact alone would appear to eliminate terminal effects of starvation as a cause of death.”
Eric Volz, the managing director of the David House Agency, said in a telephone interview that he was “perplexed about why Qatar would let the case get this far,” and said the United States ambassador to Qatar, Susan L. Ziadeh, had been “attentive and helpful.” Ms. Ziadeh did not respond to requests for comment on the case.
Mr. Volz also faulted Mr. Huang’s employer, MWH Global, an engineering and construction firm based in Broomfield, Colo., asserting that it should have taken a more aggressive role in helping with the Huangs’ defense. Mr. Huang, he said, “clearly wasn’t prepared for something like this happening.”
A spokeswoman for MWH, Faithe Gorman-Smith, responded in an email that the company had paid for the Huangs’ legal counsel when they were arrested, that it was continuing to pay Mr. Huang’s salary and benefits and was providing other support for the family, and that it remained “hopeful for a prompt resolution to this matter.”