JULY 31, 2014
U.S. Seeks Release of Couple in Qatar, Creating Tensions With a Crucial Arab Ally
By RICK GLADSTONE
The United States on Thursday called on Qatar, the tiny gulf emirate and important Arab ally, to lift a travel ban on an American couple held there for more than 19 months on a criminal prosecution over the death of their adopted African daughter, a case that critics contend is riddled with irregularities, racial prejudice and cultural misunderstandings.
In a statement,  the State Department said it was concerned about the well-being of the couple, Matthew and Grace Huang of Los Angeles, and their two sons, who were both returned to the United States in the custody of other relatives after the parents were arrested and imprisoned in January 2013.
The State Department said it had requested the Qatari government's "assistance in providing a fair and expeditious conclusion to the proceedings," which have moved slowly even though the original charge of murder was thrown out, replaced by the lesser charge of child endangerment and a conviction in March that carries a three-year prison term.
The Huangs, who assert they are innocent of any wrongdoing and have appealed, are not incarcerated while the appeal is pending but are prohibited from leaving Qatar. The next court hearing is in October. Prosecutors are seeking a longer sentence.
"We also urge the Qatari government to lift the current travel ban and allow Mr. and Mrs. Huang to return home to the United States to be reunited with their two sons and the rest of their family," the State Department statement said.
American officials have raised the Huang case with Qatar's government on multiple occasions, including questions about the fairness of the prosecution. But the statement on Thursday was the first time that the United States had publicly asked for the Qatar government's help in both resolving the issue and permitting the Huangs to leave.
The statement was an outcome of meetings on Wednesday in Washington between the couple's relatives, legal advocates and two powerful State Department officials, Wendy R. Sherman, the under secretary for political affairs, and Anne W. Patterson, the assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs. The statement said Ms. Sherman had "conveyed concern for the Huang family's well-being, adding that assisting U.S. citizens in need overseas was among the department's highest priorities."
Advocates who attended the meetings said they were encouraged, although it remained unclear when, whether or how the Qatari government would respond. Telephone and email requests for comment from the Qatari Embassy in Washington were not immediately returned.
The Huangs, who lived in Qatar because Mr. Huang was working as an engineer there, rushed their comatose daughter, Gloria, to a hospital after she had not eaten for days, and she died on Jan. 15, 2013. Qatari prosecutors and police investigators, not believing that the Huangs were Gloria's parents, accused them of child trafficking and of deliberately withholding food from her with the intent of killing her and selling the organs.
Court papers show the prosecution based the case partly on the suspicion that the Huangs, who are of Asian descent, could not possibly have wanted black African children as their own.
The Huangs have said they are victims of a miscarriage of justice caused by basic misunderstandings about multiracial American families and adoptions, which are alien concepts in Qatar. They said Gloria, adopted from Ghana, had an eating disorder formed during an impoverished early childhood in which she would binge on food and then not eat for days.
The cause of death was never established. But the Huangs' defense team challenged the prosecution's assertion that the child had been denied food, and said a pathology report that had helped form the crux of the case appeared to have been fabricated.
The prosecution was considered so egregious that the Huangs' defense was taken up by the California Innocence Project, a San Diego-based legal advocacy organization, and the David House Agency, a Los Angeles-based group that specializes in helping clients entangled in complicated legal crises abroad.
The case also has injected some tension into Qatar's good relationship with the United States, which regards Qatar as an increasingly important strategic partner. The largest American military air base in the Middle East is in Qatar, which has played a brokering role in the current efforts to establish a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Eric Volz, the managing director of the David House Agency, who attended the meetings in Washington on Wednesday, said by telephone that the State Department officials had agreed that "there needs to be more pressure and more action taken."
At the same time, Mr. Volz said, there was still "no indication that this nightmare is going to end."