Qatar legal quagmire keeps California couple a world apart from sons
They live on West Coast time, home school their two sons on lengthy Skype sessions and record themselves reading books so their children can remember their voices.
Forced to remain in Qatar while they fight prison sentences for the death of their daughter, Matthew and Grace Huang have stripped down their lives to the basic elements in an effort to raise two children who live a world away in the Northwest.
The alternatives, they say, are too overwhelming.
The California couple, who traveled to the Middle Eastern country to help it prepare for the 2022 World Cup games, have been detained for a year on charges that they killed their daughter, one of three children they adopted from Africa.
Last month, a judge sentenced them to three years in prison without explanation, and the Huangs learned only last week that they had been convicted of child endangerment, not murder. They are allowed to remain free while they appeal their conviction.
The Huangs say that their daughter, Gloria, died from a profound eating disorder, but authorities — puzzlingly — concluded the couple were human traffickers who had planned to kill the 8-year-old and sell her organs on the black market.
Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, says the Huangs’ case is a grim example of what can befall an American couple living in a country where adoption and interracial families are viewed with suspicion and the justice system is both confusing and capricious.
“Right from Day 1, all these bizarre conclusions are being drawn about the family,” said Brooks, who is working on their case. “This case is so shockingly outrageous.”
Faced with an uncertain future, the couple focus on keeping up as normal a relationship as possible with their sons, who were allowed to leave Qatar to stay with their maternal grandmother in Washington state.
“It’s been a long time now,” Matt Huang, 37, said in an interview from Qatar. “And we don’t know how much longer the nightmare will last.”
The couple say their waking hours are largely spent inside their modest apartment in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and that many days begin with a fresh fear of being taken into custody. They venture out only occasionally to visit friends or buy groceries, but say the approaching hot season will probably limit that.
“It’s strange cooking for just the two of us when I’m used to cooking for a family,” Grace Huang, 36, said. “We’re trying to stay strong.”
Matt Huang, a Stanford-educated engineer, says he resigned his post with MWH Global after he was told that he would lose his job if he didn’t return to work. The Colorado-based company, which has offices in Arcadia and Pasadena and extensive contracts in Qatar, did not respond to requests for comment.
“They said either return to work — or lose your job,” he said. “Our case was still in limbo; we were still mourning and separated from our kids. We were in a stressful, dangerous situation.”
The Huangs adopted three special-needs children from Africa when they still lived a suburban life in Temple City. The deeply religious couple, who met in high school and attended UC Irvine together, saw the opportunity to travel overseas with their children as an adventure — but say they arrived in Qatar without any cultural training on what life would be like.
“There’s a veneer of modernity in this country,” Grace Huang said. “On the one hand, it is very advanced, at least in appearance. Yet there’s an archaic way of thinking that doesn’t match the appearance.”
Their lives changed radically in 2013, when their daughter, who they say sometimes starved herself, slipped into unconsciousness. After they carried her to a hospital for emergency treatment, they were detained, and their sons were put in an orphanage.
After being jailed for 11 months, the Huangs were just as suddenly released without explanation. During court hearings, they say, they were not provided translators, and often left with only a murky understanding of what had happened or what charges they faced.
“The legal system here doesn’t work,” Matt Huang said. “The idea of due process is nonexistent.”
Their sons, now 7 and 12, just celebrated their birthdays. Their parents are pushing for permission to leave the country while they wait for their appeal. So far, they haven’t gotten an answer.
They have sold their house in Temple City to pay their legal bills, and launched a website to tell their story and raise funds.
The Huangs’ supporters have stayed in contact with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s office, and U.S. Embassy representatives in Doha attend their court hearings, but U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Susan Ziadeh, has not commented on the case.
“We are very disappointed to see two Americans trapped in an Islamic court system — without open support,” said Richard Grenell, spokesman for the David House Agency, a Los Angeles-based crisis group that assists Americans caught up in legal problems abroad.
“What you really want is to have your government recognize your situation,” Grenell said. “But it’s been more along the lines of, ‘We’re watching what’s going on. We hope for a favorable outcome.’”
The Huangs say their story sounds unbelievable to some.
“A lot of times,” Matt Huang says, “people hear about our case and they think it’s just bizarre — because it is.”
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