DOHA, Qatar — An American couple cleared of charges in their adopted daughter's death left the Gulf Arab nation on Wednesday, leaving behind them a nearly two-year saga that climaxed with a court ruling absolving them of any wrongdoing.
The Los Angeles couple, Matthew and Grace Huang, caught international attention after they were arrested in January 2013 on murder charges following the death in Qatar of their 8-year-old daughter Gloria, who was born in Ghana.
Throughout the case, the family's representative continuously expressed concern that there were cultural misunderstandings underpinning the charges against them. Western-style adoptions and cross-cultural families are relatively rare in Qatar, which hosts an important American military air operations center near Doha that is involved in airstrikes against the Islamic State group.
The Huangs, of Asian descent, have two other African-born adopted children who left the Qatar during the trial to live with relatives in the U.S.
The case drew Washington's involvement, with U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith accompanying the Huangs on Wednesday at the Doha's Hamad International Airport to ensure they cleared passport control and reached their departure gate. The Huang's lawyer was also present.
"We feel relieved. We feel gratitude to the legal system in the state of Qatar, which after some time worked as a good legal system should," Smith told The Associated Press after ensuring the couple made it to their departure gate.
She later wrote on Twitter: "Matt and Grace Huang are wheels up from Qatar." She described the moment as "emotional."
An AP reporter at the airport witnessed the couple's last moments in Qatar before they were cleared to leave — a tense experience that brought Grace Huang to tears at one point when her husband was held up for around five minutes on the other side of passport control.
The suspense encapsulates the twists and turns the case has taken over the past nearly two years.
After a Qatari appeals court overturned charges of wrongdoing against the couple on Sunday and the judge told them they were free to go, the Huangs were stopped at the airport and had their passports confiscated as they tried to pass through airport immigration control later that day.
The delay had been caused by procedural steps that needed to be completed first, according to the family's representative Eric Volz, who traveled with them Wednesday.
The Huangs spent months behind bars before being let out on their own recognizance last November. After murder charges were dropped, they were convicted in March of child endangerment and sentenced to three years in prison. They were allowed to remain free pending their appeal, but banned from leaving the country.
On multiple occasions, the State Department raised the case with Qatari authorities and even expressed concern that not all of the evidence had been weighed by the court.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke Sunday with Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah and urged the government to immediately implement the court's decision and allow the Huangs to return home to Los Angeles.
A doctor in Qatar who conducted Gloria's autopsy determined that dehydration and a wasting disease were the cause of death. A report by Qatari police raised questions about why the Huangs would adopt children who did not share their "hereditary traits."
The Huangs said Gloria suffered from medical problems complicated by unusual eating habits. A report prepared in the U.S. by Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic psychologist who reviewed the case for the family, said that Gloria was severely malnourished when she was younger and would at times refuse to eat for several days before binge eating or getting food from unusual places, such as garbage cans or from strangers.
Despite Washington's involvement and concerns, the U.S. ambassador told the AP the case was never a political one.
"My request was only to make things move as quickly as possible, but this was not political, this was legal procedure," Smith said.