Qatar bars US couple from leaving despite acquittal over daughter’s death

The couple were initially accused of starving to death their child to sell her organs but were later jailed for three years for parental neglect.

Matthew and Grace Huang, a US couple charged over the death of their adopted daughter, were acquitted by a Qatari appeals court. Victoria Bauz/AFP Photo
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DOHA // An American couple cleared by a Qatari appeals court of wrongdoing in the death of their adopted daughter have been barred from leaving the country.

Eric Volz, who is coordinating legal and publicity efforts for the family in Doha, said Qatari immigration officials had blocked Matthew and Grace Huang from leaving yesterday and confiscated their passports just hours after an appeals court overturned a child endangerment verdict against them.

Mr and Mrs Huang were arrested in January 2013 after the death of their eight-year-old daughter Gloria, who had been adopted from an orphanage in Ghana.

The couple were initially accused of starving to death their child to sell her organs but were later jailed for three years for parental neglect.

On Sunday the appeals court ruled the couple was not guilty and said they were free to leave Qatar, based on witnesses’ accounts that Gloria was “not neglected in leading a normal life”.

“Grace and I want to go home and be reunited with our sons,” said Mr Huang, describing the judicial process as “long and emotional”.

“We have been unable to grieve our daughter’s death but we want to thank the judge for today’s decision,” he said outside the court.

“We’re looking forward to returning to the US.”

The witnesses gave evidence saying they had seen Gloria eating one day before her death, the presiding judge said.

“This negates the charge that she was prevented from eating, a charge that the court of first instance used as a base for its initial ruling,” the judge said.

A forensic pathologist told the court last month that the autopsy showed signs that Gloria had not eaten for days.

“I found no signs of food in her stomach and the whole intestine, and I found no other reasons for death,” said Anees Mahmud.

But the Huangs have insisted that Gloria died of an eating disorder rooted in a troubled early childhood.

The couple were released in November last year pending trial, but the court denied their request to leave Qatar to join their other two adopted children in the United States.

Both adoption and multiracial families are rare in Qatar, and the family’s supporters maintain Qatari authorities misunderstood the Huangs’ situation.

The public prosecutor had pushed for the death penalty for the Huangs, who were initially accused of starving Gloria to sell her body parts.

Supporters of the Huangs had launched a campaign on social media to call for their freedom.

The “Free Matt and Grace” website says their daughter died “suddenly” on January 15.

It also says she had suffered from eating disorders which “likely were triggered by the extreme poverty she endured at an early age”.

In addition to imprisonment, the lower court had ordered the couple to pay a fine of 15,000 Qatari riyals (Dh15,000) each and to be deported after serving their sentence.

US officials intervened on the couple’s behalf, with state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki last month urging Qatar to lift their travel ban immediately and bring the case to “an expeditious and just conclusion”.

Qatar hosts an important American military air operations centre at an air base outside Doha.

Mr Huang last month criticised the court as a “sham” and said the couple felt “kidnapped and trapped”.

The Huangs moved to Qatar in 2012 when Mr Huang got a job as an engineer, to work on infrastructure projects linked to the 2022 football World Cup.

Their supporters described them as a loving family and said they collected supporting testimony from people who knew them in Qatar, which authorities declined to accept.

* Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting from Associated Press