Whether a U.S. state court will have subject matter jurisdiction over a foreign order in an international child custody case turns on whether a parent is subject to the death penalty in the country originally granting child custody. That painful issue is addressed in a recent appeal from the state of Washington.
The Father, Ghassan, appealed a Washington state court’s jurisdiction and award of custody of his child, ZA, to the Mother Bethany. Ghassan and Bethany married in Saudi Arabia in 2013. Bethany is a U.S. citizen, and Ghassan is a citizen of Saudi Arabia. The couple had one child, ZA, in Saudi Arabia.
In 2017, Bethany filed for divorce in Saudi Arabia. In January 2019, a Saudi judge granted the divorce and custody of ZA to Bethany. But then in April, the father sued for custody of ZA on behalf of the paternal grandmother. The parties had a bitter custody battle in which the father accused Bethany of gender mixing, adultery, and insulting Islam.
The father presented damning evidence in the Saudi family court, including photographs of the mother in a bikini in the U.S., and a video of her doing yoga.
Adultery, insulting Islam, and insulting Saudi Arabia are crimes in Saudi Arabia which carry the death penalty. The Saudi judge derided Bethany as a foreigner, who embraced western cultural traditions, and even worse, lamented the child spoke fluent English!
The Saudi court awarded custody to the paternal grandmother who lived with the father. Bethany wisely reconciled with her ex, and convinced him to give her custody rights in exchange for her forfeiting child support. With the father’s permission to travel to Washington for a visit with her family, the mother and daughter left the sand dunes of Arabia for the Evergreen State.
The Battle Near-ish Seattle
Bethany filed a petition for temporary emergency jurisdiction under the UCCJEA and then a permanent parenting plan and child support. The father moved to dismiss for lack of personal and subject matter jurisdiction. In the alternative, he asked the court to enforce the Saudi Arabia custody order and waiver of all financial rights.
The family court denied enforcement of the Saudi order and the mother’s waiver of child support. The family court ruled that Washington had jurisdiction in a custody case if “the child custody law of a foreign country violates fundamental principles of human rights.” The father appealed.
Then in 2021, Washington amended its UCCJEA to add a provision that Washington need not recognize another country’s custody order if:
the law of a foreign country holds that apostasy, or a sincerely held religious belief or practice, or homosexuality are punishable by death, and a parent or child may be at demonstrable risk of being subject to such laws.
On appeal, the Washington Court of Appeals applied Washington’s new amendment to the UCCJEA. The Court of Appeals ruled that a Washington court need not enforce the Saudi child custody decree, and may exercise jurisdiction over custody, because Saudi Arabia punishes “apostacy” by death.
The Court of Appeals found that ample evidence supported the family judge’s ruling that the mother faced a death sentence if she returned to Saudi Arabia for her religious and political beliefs. Additionally, the father did not dispute that Bethany could receive the death sentence on her return to Saudi Arabia.
The unpublished opinion is here.