An American couple charged with starving their 8-year-old adopted daughter to death in the Gulf Arab county of Qatar was sentenced Thursday to three years in prison, a verdict that stunned and shocked the family, according to the couple's defense lawyer.
Matthew and Grace Huang of Los Angeles were jailed in Qatar on murder charges in January 2013, following the death of their daughter, Gloria. They were released from prison last November, but banned from leaving Qatar during the trial.
The case raised questions about possible cultural misunderstandings in a conservative Muslim country where Western-style adoptions and cross-cultural families are relatively rare.
On Wednesday, the State Department expressed concern that not all of the evidence had been weighed by the court. It also said it had raised the case with Qatari officials on multiple occasions.
The prosecution demanded the death penalty, alleging that the couple had denied food to Gloria and said she was locked in her room at night. The girl was pronounced dead when the Huangs took her to the hospital in January 2013.
The Huangs say their adopted daughter, who was born in Ghana, died of medical problems complicated by unusual eating habits that included periods of binging and self-starvation. Defense witnesses have testified that the girl appeared healthy and active just days before her death.
A Qatari doctor who conducted Gloria's autopsy found that the child's hips, ribs and spine protruded and concluded the cause of death was dehydration and wasting disease.
During Thursday's sentencing in Doha, Judge Abdullah El-Emedy also ordered the Huangs deported from Qatar after serving the three-year sentence and issued them a fine of 15,000 Qatari riyals, which is about $4,100.
Matthew Huang, who had been working in the booming Gulf nation as part of infrastructure improvements for Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, expressed his shock.
"We just don't believe that we have been convicted," he said. "This verdict should be overturned immediately and we should be allowed to go home."
The Huangs' lawyer, Sami Abu Sheikha, said the judge hastily read out the sentence and failed to say what the couple was guilty of. He said he would appeal.
"We feel that we have been kidnapped by the Qatari judicial system," Matthew told reporters outside the courthouse after the sentencing. "This is wrong."
An investigative report by Qatari police had raised questions about why the Huangs would adopt children who did not share their "hereditary traits" and raised concerns that the children were part of a human trafficking operation or were "bought" for organ harvesting, according to the family's website.
The Huangs, of Asian descent, have two other African-born adopted children who left Qatar during the trial to live with relatives in the U.S.
Matthew Huang described the allegations as "ridiculous" and called on President Barack Obama to explain to the ruler of Qatar "why American families adopt high-need children."
Gloria, who was severely malnourished in early childhood, would periodically refuse food for several days and then binge eat or get food from bizarre sources, such as garbage cans or from strangers — a behavior her parents traced to her impoverished upbringing and were trying to address.
She would also try to leave the house at night in search of food and pick through the medicine cabinet on late-night binges, according to a report prepared last year in the U.S. by Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist who reviewed the case for the family.
When Gloria died, she was in an anorexic episode and had not eaten in as many as four days, Ophoven wrote in her report last year.
Eric Volz, managing director of the David House Agency, which is coordinating legal and publicity efforts for the family, told reporters on Thursday that the appeal process takes anywhere from six months to one year.
He said the prosecutor's case has "zero evidence" and that it was not clear if the Huangs will be imprisoned pending appeal.