U.S.-Saudi child custody case earns major ruling for mother

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

WENATCHEE — A Wenatchee woman has won a key legal ruling to keep her daughter from being returned to the child’s father in Saudi Arabia.

Bethany Vierra Al-Haidari has struggled in the Saudi courts to retain custody amid her divorce from her Saudi husband. She left Saudi Arabia with her daughter in 2019, while her former husband sued to retain child custody.

Back in Wenatchee, Al-Haidari asked Chelan County Superior Court to invalidate rulings by the Saudi courts that uniformly went in her husband’s favor. Saudi law makes almost all women’s freedoms subject to the will of their husbands or nearest male relatives.

Al-Haidari’s lawyer, Scott Volyn, told the court that having left Saudi Arabia with her daughter, she’s subject to imprisonment or even execution if she returns. Al-Haidari, who studied human rights as a Ph.D candidate, argued in Ferrera’s court against the Saudi system.

In a Feb. 9 ruling, Chelan County Superior Court Judge Kristin Ferrera said Saudi court rulings that awarded the father custody are unenforceable in Washington, because they deny the mother her basic rights as a human and a parent.

“Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system that places all major decision-making with the father, solely based on his gender, and which could effectively eliminate the mother’s rights to visitation, equates to a child custody law that violates the fundamental principles of human rights,” Ferrera wrote in her ruling.

“… As a woman, an American citizen, and a non-Muslim, Bethany was not honored with due process and equality as a parent in Saudi Arabia,” she wrote, “therefore this Court cannot uphold the child custody decisions of the Saudi court.”

The child’s father has disputed Ferrera’s decision and the claims Al-Haidari made in her petition. The case remains open until the court can set a child custody agreement.