U.S.-Saudi child custody case comes to Chelan County court

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Bethany Vierra and her daughter in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Women's Skills Bureau, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)

WENATCHEE — A Wenatchee native appeared in court Monday in a bid to keep her 5-year-old daughter from being returned to the child’s father in Saudi Arabia.

Bethany Ann Vierra Alhaidari spent two years struggling in the Saudi courts to retain custody of the child amid her divorce from her Saudi husband. Now living back in Chelan County, she asked Superior Court Judge Kristin Ferrera to maintain and enforce the child’s residency here in the United States.

Her attorney, Scott Volyn, argued that because Saudi guardianship laws overwhelmingly favor Muslim men over non-Muslim women, the custody granted Vierra’s husband in the Saudi courts should be struck down.

“A tribunal in Saudi Arabia dealing with child custody where the mother is an American citizen, as is the child, and the father is a Saudi citizen is hardly an impartial tribunal,” Volyn said, arguing that Saudi Arabia’s brutal record on human rights and the rights of women means its family-court findings should be given no weight in American courts.

“The court has pointed out that were my client to return now, that she would be subject to imprisonment and/or death, and there is a fair amount of information consistent with that claim,” Volyn told Ferrera.

Ferrera said she’d consider the major points of the case, including a contempt of court request against Vierra’s former husband, at a later hearing.

Vierra attended Central Washington University in Ellensburg, and studied human rights as a Ph.D. candidate at the National University of Ireland.
She moved to Saudi Arabia in 2011, after teaching English and American culture in Tunisia.

In Riyadh, she established a yoga studio in the diplomatic sector, catering to foreign clients and expatriates. She married her Saudi husband in 2013, and the following year legally changed her name in Chelan County court.

Vierra and her husband divorced in Saudi courts in 2018, after she alleged he had emotionally and verbally abused her. A cousin of Vierra’s told the New York Times in March that her ex-husband, who sponsored her Saudi residency, had allowed it to expire and endangered her chance to remain in the country.

That sponsorship was key to her ability to stay in the country and exercise her parental rights under Saudi law. Vierra left Saudi Arabia with her daughter last December under a Saudi court order to return, but says she has no intention to do so.

She told Ferrera she did not intend her case as a broad attack on Islamic interpretations of law.

“… It is not sharia law or Islamic law in itself that is problematic
or is at question in this case,” she said. “There’s countless diverse interpretations of Islamic law that exist, and some of those interpretations protect and uphold human rights, while some interpretations simply do not. It is specifically the Saudi government’s rigid and discriminatory interpretation of Islamic law that is dangerous and in question here.”

She said the Saudi practice of male guardianship over families and “sponsorship” of foreign visitors “are modern forms of slavery.”

“Saudi Arabia’s made superficial reformations to male guardianship
laws,” Vierra said, “but as Human Rights Watch has correctly asserted, these reformations have failed to address the core issues of gender discrimination, which remain fully intact at present.”