x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Qatar court jails US couple for death of adopted daughter

Matthew and Grace Huang maintain their innocence in the death of their daughter Gloria from Ghana. Authorities say the couple starved their daughter to sell her organs, but the couple say Gloria suffered from an eating disorder.

DOHA // A Doha court on Thursday sentenced an American couple to three years in prison over the death of their adopted daughter, in a controversial ruling that may test Qatar’s relations with the United States.

Qatari authorities arrested Grace and Matthew Huang in January last year following the death of Gloria, an eight-year-old who was born in Ghana. The couple, who are Americans of Asian descent, have said their daughter suffered from an eating disorder that she acquired before being taken from her life of poverty in the West African country, but Qatari officials say she died because of attempts to “harvest her organs or to conduct medical experiments on her”.

The verdict drew accusations from defence lawyers that Qatari authorities had mishandled the case.

There have also been suggestions by US officials that the prosecution of the couple was based on cultural misunderstanding, as Qatar might find the practice of foreign adoptions suspicious.

The Huangs have two other adopted children who were born in Africa.

“We have just been wrongfully convicted and we feel as if we are being kidnapped by the Qatar judicial system,” Mr Huang said after the verdict, which also fined the couple 15,000 Qatari riyals (Dh15,123).

“This verdict is wrong and appears to be nothing more than an effort to save face,” he said.

“We are calling on United States President Obama to call the head of state in Qatar and explain to him why American families adopt high-needs children,” Mr Huang said.

On Wednesday, the US state department expressed concern that the Qatari court had not properly weighed all the evidence against the Huangs and “that cultural misunderstandings may have been leading to an unfair trial”.

A member of the defence team, Eric Volz, cited what appeared to be serious flaws in the conviction, including a failure to spell out exactly what crime the couple had been found guilty of committing.

“The judge literally read a couple of sentences. There wasn’t much explanation given. There’s still a lot of confusion as to how this is happening,” he said.

He said the “judge did not specify for what crime he was sentencing them” and added that the defence team was “asking how can someone be sentenced without being convicted”.

The couple was shocked by the verdict, Mr Volz said, saying they had bought plane tickets home with the expectation that they would be acquitted.

The Huangs have said Gloria was malnourished during her early childhood and continued to display unusual and unhealthy eating habits long after they took custody. These included days-long fasts followed by binge-eating sessions, as well as scavenging through neighbours’ rubbish bins for food, according to a report published last year by an American paediatric forensic pathologist who reviewed the case.

Gloria died during a bout of anorexia, according to the report by Dr Janice Ophoven.

Mr Huang is a Stanford-educated engineer who moved with his family to Qatar in 2012 to work on infrastructure projects for the football World Cup that the country will host in 2022.

In an interview published on Monday by The New York Times, Mr Huang said that authorities had incarcerated him with as many as 150 other inmates in the same cell and accused him of everything from adultery and drunkenness to assault and murder.

The couple were released from jail in November, but the court, which pushed for the death penalty against them, denied their request to leave the country to join their children, who are living with relatives in the US.

hnaylor@thenational.ae