A San Gabriel Valley couple who moved to Qatar to help the tiny country ready itself for hosting the 2020 World Cup games were sentenced Thursday to three years in prison for the death of their adopted daughter, a verdict that stunned those who have followed the case.
Matthew and Grace Huang have been detained in the country's capital, Doha, for nearly a year on charges they murdered the girl — one of three children they adopted from Africa. The couple contend Gloria, 8, died from an eating disorder.
The case has drawn international attention and supporters say the ordeal highlights deeply rooted prejudices in the Middle East, where adoptions and interracial families are rare.
The couple, allowed to remain free after the verdict but barred from leaving the country, plan to appeal, a family spokesman said.
"One of the very real problems of this case is that Qatar officials looking at it absolutely don't understand how an Asian American couple could adopt a special-needs African American child," said Richard Grenell, spokesman for the David House Agency, a Los Angeles-based crisis group that advises Americans caught up in legal problems abroad.
Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, based at California Western School of Law in San Diego, said it appears authorities in Qatar reached the conclusion that the couple was engaged in child trafficking and planned to kill their daughter to sell her organs.
"Right from Day 1, all these bizarre conclusions are being drawn about the family," said Brooks, who is also working on their case. "This case is so shockingly outrageous."
The report Doha police officers wrote raised suspicion about an Asian couple who had adopted "ugly black children," Brooks noted. "That's what it actually said."
Officials accused the couple of starving their daughter over a four-day period, charges the Huangs denied. They said Gloria suffered from an eating disorder dating to her childhood in Ghana, which caused her to fast, binge or steal food to stay alive.
During the trial, family friends testified they often saw all three youngsters eat regularly and that all of them seemed healthy and happy.
Brooks said the police report indicated the girl had no access to water or a bed to sleep in. However, he said the child's bedroom actually had an en-suite bathroom and that crime scene photos clearly showed her bed.
Matthew Huang, an engineer who graduated from UC Irvine, was assigned to work on improving Doha's water and sewer systems in advance of the World Cup games and was eager to experience life in another country, friends said.
But the couple's lives were turned upside down last year with the death of their daughter — who they carried to a hospital after she became unconscious — and their arrest. Their other two adopted children, both boys, were taken from them and put in an orphanage. The couple remained behind bars for 11 months before being released on their own recognizance.
Grace Huang's mother, who lives in Washington state, has since been given custody of the boys and Gloria's body was buried in California.
The Huangs' legal team said it is planning an appeal, probably starting in May. Among the next steps is to seek assistance from the U.S. government, according to Grenell. In Doha, staff at the American Embassy have monitored the case as Qatar is considered a close U.S. ally.
Yet supporters struggle with the unknown.
"The Qatar system is not a rational system," Grenell said, adding that although the court in Qatar sentenced the couple, there was never an actual verdict in the case.
"The elites who are in charge of Qatar get to decide what the process is," he said.
"It's been more than a year since they've hugged their kids," Grenell said of the Huangs. "I don't know how they're going to tell their sons they won't be able to see them for three years."