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Qatar sentences US couple to 3 years in prison

DOHA, Qatar — Matthew and Grace Huang, an American couple accused in the death of their daughter by depriving her of sustenance for four days, were each sentenced Thursday to three years in prison followed by deportation, in a case that has drawn close attention here and in the United States.

They were allowed to leave the courtroom after the verdict, and their lawyer said they would appeal the judgment, a process that would most likely begin in May.

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In a statement he read to reporters outside the courtroom, Matthew Huang, 37, said: “We have just been wrongfully convicted and we feel as if we are being kidnapped by the Qatar judicial system. This verdict is wrong and appears to be nothing more than an effort to save face.”

“This verdict should be overturned immediately and we should be allowed to go home,” he said.

The Huangs have denied the charges and said that they were victims of a gross miscarriage of justice. They said their daughter, Gloria, whom they had adopted from Ghana, had an eating disorder formed during an impoverished childhood in Africa, which sometimes led her to fast, binge or steal food. Friends of the family said that Gloria, who was 8, and two sons the couple had also adopted from Africa had seemed healthy and happy.

The couple had already spent 11 months in detention before being released on their own recognizance in November. The sentence Thursday was read out to a packed courtroom, where many verdicts were issued in a series of unrelated trials. The exact charge on which the two were convicted was not clear.

The precise cause of the child’s death remains uncertain. But the Huangs, their lawyers and supporters have said the case has revealed what they called deeply ingrained prejudices here about adoption and multiracial families, leading to the presumption that the girl must have been abused.

The family was living in Doha because Matthew Huang, an engineer, had been working on the city’s water and sewage systems.

The case began in January 2013, when the Huangs were arrested after rushing their unconscious daughter to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead. The couple’s two boys, now 8 and 12, were temporarily placed in an orphanage but a judge later gave Grace Huang’s mother, who lives in Washington state, custody.

The couple’s trial was regarded by some as a test of the country’s commitment to judicial process. It has also been followed closely by the U.S. Embassy because the United States considers Qatar an important ally. America’s biggest military base in the Middle East is in Qatar, and dozens of U.S. corporations and organizations operate here.

Prosecutors initially based part of their case on the suggestion that the Huangs may have been child traffickers, questioning in court how people of Asian descent could possibly want African children.

In his statement, Matthew Huang said: “The prosecutor accused us of trafficking our legally adopted children with the intent of selling their organs. That is how ridiculous this is.”

He continued: “We are calling on the United States President Obama to call the head of state in Qatar and explain to him why American families adopt high-needs children.”

In the courtroom, the Huangs sat with family members, friends from a Bible study group and two representatives from the U.S. Embassy.

Eric Volz, the managing director of the David House Agency, a Los Angeles-based group that advises Americans entangled in legal problems abroad and has been helping the Huangs, told reporters that there was “zero evidence” in the case. The couple had already bought airline tickets in the expectation of being acquitted, he said, and had planned to fly to the United States to see their sons.

Volz said the judge on Thursday had declared defendants in other cases guilty or not guilty. But in the Huangs’ case, he merely read out the sentence.

“We see that as a grave violation of due process. How can he punish them without convicting them? The judge didn’t even say what he was declaring them guilty of at all,” Volz said.

But the Huangs’ lawyer, Sami Abu Shaikha, said the charges would not routinely be read out in court.

“In essence, I am satisfied with the verdict, because what it really means is that we have managed to convince the court that the death of Gloria was not an intentional, premeditated murder, which is the narrative presented by the prosecutor,” Abu Shaikha said.

“Of course, I would have been more satisfied had the Huangs been found entirely innocent,” he said. “This is why we will file an appeal. But I praise the Qatari court for their understanding and ruling.”

The couple will remain free during the appeal, the lawyer said, and if their conviction is upheld, the 11 months they spent in detention last year will be taken off the sentence. Under Qatari judicial rules, a one-year sentence translates to nine months of actual jail time, meaning that the Huangs would serve a further 16 months in prison if they lost their appeal.

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