- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

An American-born woman trying to flee with her two children from her Saudi husband told a congressional hearing yesterday she received little support or guidance from U.S. consular officials as she was pressured to leave her children behind in Saudi Arabia last month.

Sarah Waheed Saga, who was herself kidnapped by her Saudi father and taken to Saudi Arabia as a child, told the House Government Reform subcommittee on wellness and human rights that three U.S. consular officers in Jidda stood by as Saudi government officials insisted she sign a document waiving all custody rights to her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter if she left the country.

“Nobody at all talked to me about my legal rights,” Mrs. Saga told the subcommittee, her voice breaking on occasion. “They gave me information on my passport and that’s all. Nobody talked to me about what I should or shouldn’t do.”

Faced with what she described as abuse from her husband, she decided to take the painful course of departure without her children

Subcommittee Chairman Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, called Mrs. Saga’s case a “tragedy” and said it was only the latest in a series of bitter disputes with Saudi Arabia in child-abduction and disputed custody cases.

Saudi Arabia has refused to sign an international convention on child-abduction disputes, he said.

Women like Mrs. Saga live in fear of their fathers, husbands and male guardians and “it is time that the American government did something about it,” he said.

The issue has become a sore point in U.S.-Saudi relations, already strained by differences over Iraq and criticism by some in the United States that Saudi Arabia has not done enough to curb international terrorism or combat Islamic fundamentalist sentiment at home.

“We continue to foster a relationship with a country that abuses not only its own citizens but American citizens as well,” said Rep. Diane Watson, California Democrat.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said the State Department has pressed Saudi Arabia and other Middle East regimes in disputed custody cases, with some results to show for it.

She said seven Americans held against their will in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria have been reunited with their U.S. relatives after a trip she made to the region in January. She made a second trip to Saudi Arabia in April, and three more disputed cases are expected to be resolved soon involving Saudi Arabia.

But she acknowledged that many of the cases are complicated by the fact that the children involved have dual citizenship and U.S. court and custody orders are not enforceable abroad. The Saga case, she said, demonstrates the “pain” involved in such cases, but also the “limits of our abilities to meet our goals.”

She said consular officials in Jidda told her they had recommended that Mrs. Saga not sign the waiver, something Mrs. Saga denied.

A day later, Mrs. Saga signed a second document drafted by embassy personnel saying she “did not intend permanently to waive my right at some later time to demand custody of my children.”

Both letters were witnessed by Loren G. Mealey, an officer at the Jidda consulate.

Mrs. Harty said consular officers believed the first waiver letter was not legally enforceable, but Mr. Burton said the letter would prove at least a public-relations bonanza for Saudi officials if the custody battle continued.

Saudi government representatives did not testify at yesterday’s hearing, although at least one embassy employee was seen in the audience.

But the embassy did submit a statement to the subcommittee saying that progress had been made on a number of outstanding cases and that “child custody issues are a human tragedy that should not be politicized.”

The statement said that 10 children involved in outstanding custody cases will be returned to the United States this year — approximately 40 percent of the disputed cases.

“It is important to note that there are about 1,100 cases of child custody involving one American parent and less than one percent of these involve Saudi parents,” according to Mannal Radwan, assistant director of political and congressional affairs at the Saudi Embassy who has dealt extensively with such cases.

But Ms. Radwan said Saudi Arabia still was not willing to sign the 1988 international convention governing child-abduction disputes, saying the kingdom prefers a bilateral protocol with the United States.

Despite harsh criticism in the past of the State Department’s handling of such cases, Mr. Burton said yesterday he had seen some progress in recent days.

“Before, the custodial American parents [in Saudi cases] were given no hope that their sons and daughters would ever be returned to them,” he said. “We are now starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel, although we have quite a way to go before we completely emerge from the darkness.”

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