Matt and Grace Huang held in Qatar: Why the silence from Obama, Kerry?

In January 2013, an American couple working in Doha, Qatar lost their 8-year-old daughter to a sudden and fatal illness. The next day, Qatari officials arrested them. They were subsequently charged with murder.

During their trial, no evidence was brought to support the charge. The prosecution’s pathology report was roundly debunked. Then in March 2014, after a year in jail, they were sentenced to prison. According to Reuters, “The judge reading the verdict did not specify what offense the couple had been convicted of.”

The couple, Matt and Grace Huang of Los Angeles, remains detained, forbidden to leave Qatar. They have been diagnosed with PTSD. In the 21st-century, the trial of Joseph K. is alive and well.


The Huangs’ next hearing is set for October; in the meantime, their family has made some progress. The David House Agency, the Huang family’s legal counsel, has conducted private negotiations and provided the courts with medical evidence of their innocence. As a result, the State Department finally called on Qatar to “lift the current travel ban” on the Huangs in July, its only such public remark.

In one sense, the State Department’s reticence has been unsurprising: it has to balance its duty to protect Americans overseas with the need to manage good relations with foreign governments, and Qatar’s is significant. In addition to hosting U.S. talks with the Taliban and negotiations for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, Qatar is the site of the U.S. air base Al Udeid, currently used for launching strikes on ISIS in Iraq. The New York Times reports that Qatar may also be responding to pressure from U.S. regional allies to reduce its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar’s importance to Washington doesn’t improve the optics of the U.S. ambassador chaperoning Qatari World Cup officials on business trips while keeping mum on the detention, without due process, of two American citizens. But it does suggest that the ambassador has a difficult and delicate task.

That said, the Obama administration’s support for the Huangs has been conspicuously paltry. Other than the State Department’s short press statement in July, not a word of support has been spared.

Evidently, Qatar hasn’t returned the administration’s goodwill: the Gulf sheikhdom has since pressed Hamas to reject ceasefires with Israel and supported Islamist militias in Libya. Some in the U.S. and German governments have accused Qatar of funding ISIS militants. If the U.S. is benefitting in some way from the Obama administration’s ‘smart diplomacy’ in the case of the Huangs, it’s not clear how.

Making matters worse, a little-known but dangerous provision to a 2015 appropriations bill called “Assistance for United States Citizens and Nationals Wrongly Detained Abroad” (AFDA) is making its way through Congress. The provision is meant to help American detainees like the Huangs, but is so poorly designed that, if ratified by the House, it will actually harm them. For example, it requires the Secretary of State to determine which American detainees deserve “enhanced support” according to a list of nine criteria, the first of which is “whether the detained individual has presented credible evidence of factual innocence to United States Government officials.”

Notice how the American in this scenario is not presumed innocent, but is required, while in detention, to prove his innocence. Is it not first the responsibility of the foreign court to prove a U.S. citizen’s guilt?

The provision also asks “whether the United States embassy in the country where the individual is being detained” has reason to believe “that the detention is more likely than not a pretext.” Given the importance of Qatar to current U.S. diplomatic matters, can the Secretary of State really be expected to call its court system a sham? Will the U.S. Foreign Service officers in Doha really recommend that he does? And yet, if he doesn’t – per AFDA’s directives – the Huangs won’t be eligible for “enhanced support” from their own government.

Imagine the damage to the Huangs’ family and legal team if AFDA is passed and compels America’s chief diplomat to infer their guilt.

In Kafka’s "The Trial," Huld the Lawyer tells Joseph K. he must file a brief, but since the charge is unknown, it’s unclear how. The charge against Matt and Grace Huang remains unknown, but it’s clear what needs to be done: pressure the Obama administration and its new ambassador to Qatar to show clear public support for the Huangs; convince the House Appropriations Committee to remove AFDA from its bill; and support the quiet efforts of The David House Agency to free Matt and Grace. Their Kafkaesque nightmare has gone on long enough.

Follow Jeremy Stern on Twitter: @JeremySternVM