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.

Talk to us

More in Northwest

An egg-producing chicken is in a pasture at Wilcox Family Farms, Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Roy, Wash. Eggs have been one item that can be hard to find on grocery store shelves during the outbreak of the coronavirus, even though the closure of restaurants and large corporate kitchens has led to a decreased demand for food service egg products. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
State asks live poultry sales to end because of bird flu

The 30-day closure is not mandatory. There are still no reported infections in Snohomish County.

King County Superior Court Judge Roger  Rogoff stands in court, Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, in Seattle. Rogoff announced Monday that a settlement had been reached in a lawsuit brought by survivors and family members of people killed in a 2014 Oso, Wash., landslide against the state of Washington and a timber company that logged an area above the site of the slide. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Former judge to head office probing Washington police shootings

The state’s new independent office will review cases where police use deadly force.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis, wearing an eagle feather honoring her Native American heritage, smiles as she speaks with media members after being named to the state Supreme Court Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, in Olympia, Wash. Montoya-Lewis was appointed to the bench by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who said she will be the first Native American justice to serve on the state's highest court. Montoya-Lewis, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Isleta and a descendant of the Pueblo of Laguna Indian tribes, will be sworn in next month to fulfill the remaining year of Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst's term, and the seat will be open for election in 2020. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
State Supreme Court Justice Montoya-Lewis on medical leave

Officials with the court didn’t release additional details, citing the justice’s desire for privacy.

Police: Arby’s manager in Washington peed in milkshake mix

He said he did it for sexual gratification, and he’s “almost sure” he threw the tainted bag away.

Andrew Cain Kristovich (Snohomish County Sheriff's Office)
Oregon fugitive with Snohomish County ties arrested in Nevada

Andrew Cain Kristovich escaped from a federal prison camp in April. He was considered armed and dangerous.

FILE - In this Monday, March 1, 2021 file photo, The first Alaska Airlines passenger flight on a Boeing 737-9 Max airplane takes off on a flight to San Diego from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. A Boeing pilot involved in testing the 737 Max jetliner was indicted Thursday, Oct. 14,2021 by a federal grand jury on charges of deceiving safety regulators who were evaluating the plane, which was later involved in two deadly crashes. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Alaska Airlines to keep canceling flights at high level for weeks

Flight cancellations since April will continue. The chaos has been damaging for Seattle’s hometown airline.

FILE - Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks March 23, 2022, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Months into a complex trial over their role in flooding Washington with highly addictive painkillers, the nation's three largest opioid distributors have agreed to pay the state $518 million. Ferguson announced the deal Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
DNA from 372 state sex offenders added to national database

Officials have been unable to collect samples from some offenders, including three in Snohomish County.

FILE - Randy Weaver, the object of the Ruby Ridge siege, visits with the media at the main FBI roadblock outside the Freemen compound in Montana on April 27, 1996. Weaver, patriarch of a family that were involved in an 11-day Idaho standoff in 1992 with federal agents that left three people dead and served as a spark for the growth of anti-government extremists, has died at the age of 74. His death was announced Thursday, May 12, 2022, in a Facebook post by daughter Sara Weaver, who lives near Kalispell, Montana. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
Randy Weaver, participant in Ruby Ridge standoff, dies at 74

The 11-day standoff in the Idaho Panhandle mountains transfixed the nation in August of 1992.

Barbara Williams, center, holds an umbrella for her mother, tribal chair Cecile Hansen, right, as they prepare to join other members of the Duwamish Indian Tribe in performing an "honor song" Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 near a location in Seattle where bones were found during construction activities near the Pike Place Market. The song was performed because the tribe felt at the time that the remains could have been from an ancient member of the tribe, but city authorities said later in the day that the remains appeared to have been from a small animal. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Duwamish Tribe sues again for federal recognition

Tthe lawsuit demands the court set aside the denial of recognition in 2015 by the Obama administration.

A pod of transient orcas, known as T124As, surfacing near Tacoma. (Craig Craker/Orca Network)
Sightings of mammal-eating orcas increasing in Puget Sound

The killer whales enjoy a diet of harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises and the occasional bird or squid.

FILE - Bill Gates discusses his book "How to Prevent the Next Pandemic" at the 92nd Street Y on May 3, 2022, in New York. Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates posted on Twitter on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, that he tested positive for COVID-19. He said he was experiencing mild symptoms and was following the experts' advice by isolating until he is healthy again. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
Bill Gates says he has COVID, experiencing mild symptoms

The billionaire philanthropist said he will isolate until he is again healthy.

FILE - Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin enters the house chambers at the state Capitol building on Jan. 10, 2022 in Boise, Idaho. McGeachin, a GOP candidate for governor, on Monday, May 9, 2022, called on incumbent Republican Gov. Brad Little to call a special session to eliminate rape and incest as legal exceptions to Idaho's abortion law. The law would go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger, File)
Idaho lieutenant governor wants harshest U.S. abortion ban

Janice McGeachin is angling for state lawmakers to eliminate exceptions for rape and incest.