Cashmere mom wins custody case that straddles two countries

A Chelan County judge ruled that Saudi Arabian courts did not provide the woman with due process.

By Pete O’Cain / The Wenatchee World

WENATCHEE — After a divorce proceeding that began more than three years ago on the other side of the world, a Cashmere native is one step closer to custody of her daughter following a local court decision that found her basic human rights were violated by a foreign court.

A Chelan County judge has ruled that Saudi Arabian courts did not provide a Bethany AlHaidari with due process in a custody battle with her ex-husband. Custody of the child will be determined locally.

Bethany AlHaidari in December 2019 fled Saudi Arabia with her daughter, Zaina, to Chelan County, where she has family, after a two-year divorce and custody dispute with ex-husband Ghassan AlHaidari. Bethany AlHaidari through her attorney Scott Volyn in January 2020 asked Chelan County Superior Court to allow custody to be determined in Chelan County, departing from typical international custody dispute protocol, on the grounds that Saudi laws violate human rights.

Chelan County Superior Court Judge Kristin Ferrera on Feb. 9 ruled in favor of Bethany AlHaidari and a parenting plan will be determined in Superior Court, provided Ghassan AlHaidari doesn’t successfully appeal.

“A legal system that is set up to not only fail to protect but to deny basic human rights as a matter of course, such as the right to due process and the right of a parent to a child, based solely on that parent’s gender, national origin, and/or religion, is not a legal system whose child custody laws this State can honor,” Ferrera wrote in her decision.

In an interview, Bethany AlHaidari, 33, said, “Reading the court’s opinion and the factual presentation of events was sort of a moment of breathing in a bit of justice after such a long time of not being properly heard.”

She added, “It just feels to me like justice after a long time of injustice.”

Bethany AlHaidari splits her time between Wenatchee and Washington, D.C., and works as a human rights consultant, operates a charity called saudijustice.org, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in international rights law.

To say it’s been a long road would be an understatement.

In 2011, then Bethany Vierra moved to Saudi Arabia to teach. She met Ghassan AlHaidari the following year. They wed in 2013 and in 2014 she gave birth to their daughter, Zaina.

Their marriage fell apart in September 2017 and a Saudi court granted them a divorce in January 2019, igniting a bitter custody battle, according to Ferrera’s decision.

In her decision, Ferrera included a description of events, which has been detailed in Superior Court documents filed by Bethany and Ghassan after the current case was filed, that led up to her ruling.

A Saudi judge refused to order Ghassan AlHaidari to renew Bethany AlHaidari’s legal residency in the country. That was set to expire soon, and in February 2019 she no longer had legal status in the country, meaning she couldn’t take legal actions or access her bank account at the risk of being deported or jailed.

Her residency was restored only after The New York Times published a story that raised awareness about her situation.

In April 2019, Ghassan AlHaidari sought to remove her custody rights by alleging she worked full time, put their daughter in school instead of staying home with her and claimed Bethany AlHaidari had a learning disability. He sought to give custody to his mother, with whom he was living.

His legal team attempted to show a judge a video of his ex-wife doing yoga while uncovered in the city of Riyadh’s diplomatic quarters. The judge refused but the video was circulated on social media and she was investigated for criminal charges.

Ghassan also accused her of adultery and of insulting Islam and Saudi Arabia, according to Ferrera’s decision. Both are crimes punishable by death in the Middle Eastern country.

Custody was granted to Ghassan AlHaidari’s mother, despite testimony from his sister who argued their mother was an unfit parent, but the matter was hardly finished.

Bethany AlHaidari sought further help from the media, U.S. government and human rights organizations. Her ex-husband filed a complaint with the Saudi government alleging she was refusing visitation; the government issued an arrest warrant for her, along with a 10-year travel ban prohibiting her from leaving the country.

The custody case went to a civil court to force a settlement; the head of the court didn’t award custody to either, effectively giving Ghassan AlHaidari rights to the child, but none to Bethany AlHaidari. She would not be permitted to travel with Zaina, get her identification, take her to the hospital or enroll her in school.

Bethany AlHaidari agreed to reconcile with Ghassan AlHaidari to convince him to afford her custody rights. She forfeited her financial rights to child support in order to get the right to travel.

The final settlement in late 2019 provided both parents with visitation rights and equal custody. In December 2019, Ghassan AlHaidari granted her permission to travel to the U.S. with Zaina to visit family in Chelan County. She has not returned.

U.S. courts, when determining child custody in cases that cross state boundaries, typically follow rulings of the original court to avoid conflicts. When the case involves a foreign country, the country is treated as a state. However, courts can sidestep this if there’s a human rights violation.

“At the crux of this case is a very basic and complex question: What are the fundamental principles of human rights?” Ferrera wrote. “Statutory and case law in Washington and the United States have not clearly defined these principles as they relate to child custody laws in foreign states, leaving trial courts, as the arbiters of initial child custody determinations, at a disadvantage when tasked with answering this question.”

She noted the importance of respecting and honoring cultural differences and the laws of other countries, but said state law can’t deny someone the right to due process and the right of a parent to her child by enforcing orders from a country which “denies her these rights based solely on her gender, national origin, and religion. To honor such child custody laws would deny our state and country’s Constitutional rights to a litigant in our state’s courts.”

Bethany AlHaidari called Ferrera’s ruling “brave” and said she’s proud of Washington for taking a stand for human rights.

“I think that it is something worth saying is that this court just made a decision that could really, really protect so many people’s lives,” she said, cautioning that Ferrera’s decision is not yet case law and could be overturned at appeal.

Volyn called it a “difficult” and “powerful” decision because it requires the court to balance important factors.

“One is our longstanding principle of observing the decisions of court systems other than our own outside of our country and giving them proper respect and deference, but that reaches a limit,” Volyn said. “And it reaches a limit in comparison with our own civil justice system and the rights of our citizens and the way in which we’ve designed our process now over 200 years or more to provide for fairness and equality and equal justice.”

The next step is to develop a permanent parenting plan.

“Given that the mother and the daughter have lived now in the United States since approximately December of 2019 and the father has had no contact other than video or telephonic, electronic contact, it certainly augers in favor of retaining that stability,” Volyn said.

Ghassan AlHaidari filed a response Feb. 23 in Superior Court stating he did not agree with Ferrera’s assertion that Washington was an appropriate venue for the custody case to be heard and that he did not agree with a proposed parenting plan.

He made clear his stance in earlier filings with Superior Court when he defended the Saudi legal system, saying it ultimately provided both parents with shared custody.

“[Bethany’s] account of how this result was produced ignores the result produced, i.e. an agreed shared custody arrangement,” Ghassan wrote.

He added that the Saudi court’s ruling should be upheld.

“Washington law works differently, but not so differently that a Washington court would be warranted in finding that the Saudi Arabian legal system violates fundamental principles of human rights,” Ghassan wrote.

Bethany AlHaidari is currently helping push House Bill 1042 through the state Legislature that will give courts more authority in cases like hers.

“It makes it really hard in cases where you have authoritarian regimes which punish apostasy or political dissent with the death penalty — or homosexuality — and those things are really necessary to take into consideration, but they’re not possible as it currently stands,” she said.

The bill was passed Feb. 25 by the Senate Committee on Law and Justice and advanced to the Senate Rules Committee.

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