Updated on Dec. 1 with statement from US Secretary of State
With reporting from Riham Sheble
An American couple acquitted earlier today on charges related to the death of their daughter have been blocked from leaving Qatar, according to a family spokesperson.
This morning, Qatar’s Court of Appeal dismissed a lower court’s conviction of Grace and Matthew Huang on charges of failing to care for their daughter, Gloria, who died suddenly in January 2013.
The couple went to Hamad International Airport early this afternoon to catch one of the first available flights out of the country, according to Eric Volz, managing director of David House Agency, which is handling the couple’s public relations.
He said the Huangs were greeted outside the terminal by American ambassador Dana Shell Smith, but ran into trouble when they approached an immigration counter.
At that time, their passports were apparently confiscated, Volz said. It is not clear why this happened, but the Huangs have been under a travel ban from leaving the country for nearly two years.
It is uncommon for such travel bans to be lifted so soon after a court verdict, according to a legal source who spoke to Doha News.
Clearing the ban typically involves filing an application that contains a copy of the written judgment with the attorney-general’s office.
The source said it is unlikely a copy of the Huang’s judgment currently exists, as the judge only delivered an oral summary this morning and suggested that the full version runs some 20 pages.
He added, however, that it was possible the attorney general took the initiative to lift the travel ban himself, and said a representative from his office attending this morning’s hearing.
According to Volz, an immigration officer at the airport said a warrant for the Huangs’ arrest had been issued.
He said the arrest warrant was new and unrelated to the travel ban.
The charges contained in the arrest warrant are not known. Volz said they were told that the arrest warrant was issued by the public prosecutor’s office.
As of approximately 7pm, the Huangs were still sitting in the airport’s immigration department with the US ambassador, according to Volz.
He said they are receiving different information from different sources and are unsure what will happen next.
“(The Huangs) are scared they are going back to jail,” he said.
A spokesperson for the US embassy confirmed to Doha News that the ambassador was still at the airport and that they were waiting for guidance from the US State Department.
Last night, US Secretary of State issued a statement expressing concern about the fact that the Huangs could not leave Qatar. John Kerry said:
“I welcome the decision of the Qatari Court of Appeals to overturn the conviction of Matthew and Grace Huang. The thoroughly documented findings of the court clearly establish the Huang’s 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. We are deeply concerned about new delays that have prevented their departure. I spoke with Qatari Foreign Minister Attiya today and called on the government to immediately implement the court’s decision and permit their return to the United States without further delay.”
Also last night, the couple said that their attempts to leave the same day they were cleared were ultimately unsuccessful.
However, it appears no arrest warrant was actually issued agains the Huangs, as they were allowed to leave the airport.
On Facebook, the David House Agency posted last night:
“We just left the airport after waiting 10 hours in immigration station. We’ve been told we cannot leave the country and the U.S. government has no answers as to why. We now sit waiting for the Qatar government to make the next move.”
The Huangs were arrested in early 2013 following the death of their eight-year-old daughter, Gloria. The young girl had been adopted from Ghana and suffered from an eating disorder that would cause her to binge on food, and then refuse to eat for several days.
During the couple’s criminal trial, the court heard that Gloria had not eaten for four days prior to her death. The prosecutor argued that the parents should be found guilty of “murder by abstention” for not taking her to the doctor.
Matthew Huang previously offered his own explanation in a video appeal to supporters:
“We did not take Gloria to the hospital when she was refusing to eat because we believed she would come out of these hunger strikes as she had done before. She was lively and active and there was no reason to suspect any concern for her health.”
During the trial, the Huangs and their supporters accused the prosecutor and medical examiner of relying on a “fraudulent” pathology report, and deceiving the judge hearing their case.
However, a judge in March convicted the couple of failing to provide the necessary care for Gloria and sentenced the Huangs to three years in prison.
They appealed that decision, which led to today’s ruling.