An appeals judge in Qatar on Sunday acquitted an American Christian couple Matthew and Grace Huang of starving their adopted daughter to death in 2013 and said they are free to leave, seemingly ending the case that drew global attention to the Middle East country's justice system.
"This has been an emotional trial for me and my family," Matthew Huang said after the court's ruling outside the court room, reports the Associated Press. "Grace and I want to go home and be reunited with our sons. We have not been able to grieve our daughter's death, but we want to thank the judge for today's decision."
According to CNN, prosecutors, however, have appealed the decision, and a travel ban remains in effect, blocking the couple from leaving the wealthy OPEC nation.
The Huangs headed to the airport to board a return flight back to the United States just hours after the appeals court overturned the child endangerment verdict, but Qatari immigration officials confiscated their passports, said Eric Volz, who is coordinating the legal efforts for the family, according to The Associated Press.
The Christian couple - who were living in Qatar while Matthew Huang, a Stanford University-trained engineer, worked for an international company working on construction projects for the 2022 World Cup - were arrested in January 2013 when their 8-year-old daughter Gloria died.
They were charged with starving her to death, convicted in March and sentenced to three years in prison. They were jailed before being freed in November 2013 pending their appeal.
In explaining his decision to overturn the conviction, Judge Abdulrahman al-Sharafi cited weaknesses in forensic reports and said the trial judge failed to properly consider testimony from witnesses who said Gloria wasn't deprived, according to CNN.
A report by pathologists hired by the defense stated they found no evidence tissue samples were taken from Gloria's body after her death, the CNN reports, despite the fact Qatari investigators submitted an autopsy report.
According to Reuters, an earlier autopsy found that the girl had died of "cachexia and dehydration," and a prosecutor charged the couple with "murder with intent by forced starvation." Cachexia is an irreversible loss of body mass.
The couple argued that Gloria had been suffering from malnutrition-related diseases since they adopted her from Ghana at the age of four, and that Qatari authorities had failed to acknowledge this.
Advocates for the Huangs suggested the lab report was fabricated and said their request with the Qatari judiciary for a formal investigation went unanswered, according to CNN.
The U.S. Dept. of State has been working on the couple's behalf, and had said that "cultural misunderstandings may have led to an unfair trial," according to Reuters. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki last month urged Qatar to lift their travel ban immediately and bring the case to "an expeditious and just conclusion," the Associated Press reports.
The Huangs have two other African-born adopted children, who were temporarily placed in a Qatari orphanage. The two children have since been sent back to the United States to live with Grace Huang's mother.
Their efforts to deal with the charges left them unable to grieve Gloria's loss.
"Everything has revolved around her case and our situation," Grace Huang said, according to CNN. "We haven't had a chance to really say goodbye and mourn. We just really want to be able to honor her place in our lives with our friends and family and that hasn't happened yet."