DOHA, Qatar (AP) — An American couple cleared Sunday by a Qatari appeals court of wrongdoing in the death of their 8-year-old adopted daughter has been barred from leaving the Middle Eastern country just hours after they were told they were free to go.
Matthew and Grace Huang were stopped from exiting the conservative Gulf nation and had their passports confiscated as they tried to pass through airport immigration control in the capital, Doha, said family representative Eric Volz, who is traveling with them. The unexpected delay adds a new twist to a closely watched legal saga over the death of their adopted daughter, Gloria, that may have stemmed from cultural misunderstandings in the conservative Gulf nation.
The Los Angeles couple had been banned from leaving the energy-rich OPEC nation while their case made its way through the courts, but the appeals court ruled Sunday they were free to leave after the presiding judge overturned a child endangerment conviction against them.
They were met at the airport by U.S. Ambassador Dana Shell Smith, reflecting the intensity of American government interest in the case.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the court's decision to overturn the Huangs' conviction, but said the U.S. was "deeply concerned about new delays that have prevented their departure." Kerry said in a press statement that he had spoken Sunday with Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya and urged the Qatari government to immediately implement the court's decision and allow the family to return to the U.S. "without further delay."
"The thoroughly documented findings of the court clearly establish the Huangs' innocence. The 22 long months of court proceedings following their daughter's tragic death have compounded the tragedy for the Huang family, and it is time now, as the Appeals Court stated, to let the Huangs return home," Kerry said.
The Huangs spent months behind bars before being let out on their own recognizance last November. They were convicted in March of this year of child endangerment and sentenced to three years in prison. They were allowed to remain free pending their appeal.
A doctor in Qatar who conducted Gloria's autopsy determined that dehydration and wasting disease were the cause of death. The Huangs have maintained their innocence and say Gloria suffered from medical problems complicated by unusual eating habits that included periods of binging and self-starvation. Prosecutors alleged she died after being denied food and locked in her room.
The Huangs have two other African-born adopted children and have been pressing Qatari officials unsuccessfully for permission to leave the country to be with them.
"It has been a long and emotional trial for me and my family, and Grace and I want to go home and be reunited with our sons," Matthew Huang said shortly after the ruling. "We have been unable to grieve our daughter."
Matthew Huang had been working in the booming nation as part of infrastructure improvements for Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
U.S. officials intervened on the couple's behalf by raising the case with Qatari officials on multiple occasions. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki last month urged Qatar to lift the Huangs' travel ban immediately and bring the case to "an expeditious and just conclusion."
Qatar also hosts an important American military air operations center near Doha that is involved in airstrikes against the Islamic State group.
The U.S. ambassador met the Huangs at Qatar's sleek new Hamad International Airport, which opened earlier this year and is the base for fast-growing flag carrier Qatar Airways.
"We are very, very happy to see justice delivered," Smith told The Associated Press as they entered the airport.
Not long afterward, the Huangs were stopped by immigration authorities.
Volz said officials informed the couple that a new appeal has been filed in their case and that they were not allowed to leave.
"As you can imagine it's a very scary situation," Volz said.
The U.S. ambassador was on the scene trying to intervene with Qatari authorities, he added.
Qatari and U.S. Embassy officials had no immediate comment.
Western-style adoptions and cross-cultural families are relatively rare in Qatar, which has aggressively pursued a higher international profile through sporting events and overseas investments.
A report by Qatari police earlier raised questions about why the Huangs, who are of Asian descent, would adopt children who did not share their "hereditary traits." It also suggested that the children could have been part of a human trafficking operation or were bought for organ harvesting, according to the family's website.
Gloria, born in Ghana, was severely malnourished when she was younger and would at times refuse to eat for several days before binge eating or getting food from unusual places, such as garbage cans or from strangers, according to a report prepared in the U.S. by Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic psychologist who reviewed the case for the family.
The report noted that such unhealthy anorexic eating patterns are not uncommon in children adopted from impoverished backgrounds, and was a behavior the girl's parents were trying to manage and correct.
The report also noted that Gloria had previously been treated for an intestinal parasite, and said recent blood tests could have indicated she suffered from an underlying bone marrow condition, as well as a vitamin D deficiency.
Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck.