An American couple on trial in Qatar over charges of murdering their eight-year-old adopted daughter by allegedly starving her to death are returning to court this week for what they’re hoping will be the last time.
UPDATE | March 27, 2014
The Huangs were sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of QR15,000 each. Read more on the verdict here.
Tomorrow morning, a panel of judges is expected to deliver its verdict on a case that has been fraught with emotion, cultural misunderstandings and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
In their first interview with media since Gloria died in January 2013, Matt and Grace Huang spoke to the New York Times this week about their court experience, the 11 months they spent in jail here and their anxiety about the upcoming decision.
The couple, who are Chinese American, moved to Doha in 2012 after 37-year-old Matt Huang took a job as an engineer with MWH Global, which is working on a drainage project for Ashghal.
Grace Huang, 36, who has a master’s degree in education, stayed at home with the couple’s three adopted children to home-school them. Months after their move, Matt Huang found Gloria unconscious in her bedroom and took her to Al Emadi Hospital, where she was declared dead.
It emerged that the girl, who was adopted from Ghana, had not eaten for the four days leading to her death. Her parents declined to comment to NYT about why they didn’t seek medical help for Gloria during this time, but previously said this was a symptom of an eating disorder she was battling. However, the police were suspicious.
The couple was taken into custody a day later, and would stay in jail for most of 2013. Meanwhile, their two sons were taken to Qatar’s orphanage, Dhreima, for four months, before being released into the custody of their grandmother, who eventually was permitted to take them back to the US in October 2013.
In November, a judge ordered the Huangs be released from prison, but said they would be unable to leave the country pending the outcome of the trial.
Due process questions
According to the NYT transcript shared with Doha News, the Huangs only saw their lawyer during court hearings – “I’m thinking of it as 30 seconds at every court hearing – (for) a total of 10 minutes,” Matt Huang said.
Eric Volz, head of the David House International Crisis Agency which is representing the couple, told Doha News that the couple’s lawyer did attempt to visit them in prison a few times, but was denied access.
Meanwhile, supporters of the Huangs have been lobbying Qatar’s attorney general to look into the case. Last month, lawyers for the couple accused a prosecutor and medical examiner of relying on a “fraudulent” pathology report to deceive the judge presiding over the trial.
According to her death certificate, Gloria died of dehydration and cachexia, or “wasting away” – a syndrome typically brought about by underlying conditions.
A pathology report presented by the prosecutor stated fluid and tissue samples showed no diseases that could have contributed to the child’s death. However, supporters allege this report was falsified, because there was no evidence that Gloria’s body was tested for these diseases.
The attorney general has not publicly responded to questions about the potential falsification of evidence.
The NYT also reports that the Huangs are still traumatized by their time in jail and have been speaking to a therapist via Skype. The couple was on separate floors of the same containment facility, but were not permitted to meet.
According to Volz, Matt and Grace Huang made independent requests to see each other, which were denied. They did see each other three times during initial visits from US Embassy officials, but then the procedure changed and the embassy was required to meet with them separately.
When asked to describe their experience in jail, Matt Huang told the NYT:
“You ask that question like we’re out of prison, and we’re still in danger,” he said. “I think just being separated from my wife, separated from my sons, was the hardest thing about being in prison.”
While Matt Huang said he was able to communicate with some other prisoners, who also hailed from professional backgrounds, his wife said she spent most of her time with women who worked as domestic help. Many, she said, had visa issues, or were jailed for having extramarital sex.
To deal with the stress, Grace Huang said she turned to her faith, adding that she was permitted to keep a Bible with her.
“They do respect religious belief,” she told the NYT.
As the Huangs await their verdict, they said they remain confused about the entire judicial process in Qatar.
“Half the time we don’t know what’s going on because of the translation and just not understanding what the process – the whole process has been so difficult and confusing that it’s just been a struggle,” Matt Huang said.
“I feel that a lot of our situation has been caused by ethnic misunderstanding, by religious misunderstanding.”
In most Muslim countries, including Qatar, adoption is eschewed in favor of foster parenting. The fact that the Huangs adopted kids from Africa, and that the church-going couple home-schooled their children also appeared to raise suspicions.
If found guilty, the couple could face the death penalty – though this sentence has not been carried out in Qatar for over a decade.
If the Huangs are acquitted, they told the NYT they look forward to going back to the US and their family. Matt Huang tendered his resignation to to his employer in January, after being requested to return to work following his year of leave.
But whether the relationship has been entirely severed remains to be seen, Matt Huang said.