DOHA, Qatar (AP) — An American couple left the Gulf nation of Qatar on Wednesday after being cleared of charges in their adopted 8-year-old daughter's death, ending a nearly two-year legal saga they contend was rooted in confusion over cross-cultural adoption.
The Los Angeles couple, Matthew and Grace Huang, caught international attention after they were arrested in January 2013 on murder charges following the death of their African-born daughter Gloria.
The Huangs, who are of Asian descent, had adopted Gloria in Ghana when she was 4 years old, and are the parents of two other African-born adopted boys.
Throughout the case, the family's representative continuously expressed concern that there were cultural misunderstandings underpinning the charges against the Huangs in a nation where Western-style adoptions and cross-cultural families are relatively rare.
An initial police report raised questions about why the Huangs would adopt children who did not share their "hereditary traits." And prosecutors also raised suspicions that the children were part of a human trafficking operation or were "bought" for organ harvesting, the family's website said.
The case drew Washington's involvement, with U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith accompanying the Huangs on Wednesday at Doha's Hamad International Airport to ensure they cleared passport control and reached their departure gate. The Huang's lawyer also was present.
"We feel relieved. We feel gratitude to the legal system in the state of Qatar, which after some time worked as a good legal system should," Smith told The Associated Press after ensuring the couple made it to their departure gate.
She later wrote on Twitter: "Matt and Grace Huang are wheels up from Qatar." She described the moment as "emotional."
An AP reporter at the airport witnessed the couple's last moments in Qatar before they were cleared to leave Wednesday— a tense experience that brought Grace Huang to tears at one point when her husband was held up for around five minutes on the other side of passport control.
The suspense encapsulates the twists and turns of a slow-moving case that became an irritant in otherwise close relations between the U.S. and Qatar, a key ally that hosts an important U.S. military air base that is involved in airstrikes against the Islamic State group.
After a Qatari appeals court overturned charges of wrongdoing against the couple on Sunday and the judge told them they were free to go, the Huangs were stopped at the airport and had their passports confiscated as they tried to pass through airport immigration control later that day.
The State Department said the delay was caused by unforeseen procedural steps that needed to be completed, though a Huang family spokesman, Eric Volz, said in a statement on his website that all paperwork had been filed.
On multiple occasions, the State Department raised the case with Qatari authorities and even expressed concern that not all of the evidence had been weighed by the court. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah and urged the government to immediately implement the court's decision and allow the Huangs to return home to Los Angeles.
The Huangs spent nearly a year behind bars before their case was finally heard for the first time last November, and they were released on their own recognizance. After murder charges were dropped, they were convicted in March of child endangerment and sentenced to three years in prison. They were allowed to remain free pending their appeal, but were banned from leaving the country.
A doctor in Qatar who conducted Gloria's autopsy determined that dehydration and a wasting disease were the cause of death.
Prosecutors had said the couple denied food to their daughter and locked her in her room at night. The Huangs said Gloria suffered from medical problems complicated by an eating disorder that was the result of her impoverished early years in Africa. They said she was not allowed from her room at night because of bizarre behavior during eating sprees, including rummaging through garbage for food.
A report prepared in the U.S. by Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist who reviewed the case for the family, found that when Gloria died, she was in an anorexic episode and had not eaten in as many as four days. The report said she was severely malnourished when she was younger and would at times refuse to eat for several days before binge eating.
In overturning their conviction Sunday, appeals court Judge Abhulrahman Sharafi said there was no proof Gloria was neglected in terms of education, food and recreation. He also referred to the medical report from the U.S., which said that she had not died due to neglect.
The Huangs moved as a family from California to Qatar in 2012 after Matthew Huang was hired to work as an engineer as part of preparations for the 2022 World Cup in Doha.
Congressman Adam Schiff of California welcomed the news that the Huangs would soon be in California, reunited with their two sons, who have been living with relatives there, after what he described as a "Kafkaesque nightmare."
Justin Brooks, the director of the California Innocence Project, which participated in the Huangs' defense, also welcomed the couple's release. "They are innocent, they have been proven innocent, and they will finally be reunited with their children," he said.
The family was headed for Los Angeles, though a spokesman would not say when they would arrive. He said they planned to have a news conference at a later date.