- In 2019, Bethany Vierra misplaced custody of her daughter to her Saudi ex and was trapped within the nation.
- Whereas her case made worldwide information, she confronted intimidation and harassment within the kingdom.
- She advised Insider how she and her youngster managed to flee to the US and stay there.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
On March 7, 2019, Bethany Vierra pulled up outdoors a espresso store in downtown Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, feeling apprehensive and scared.
That morning, the American PhD candidate had obtained a name from a person figuring out as a high-ranking Saudi authorities official, saying it was important that they meet.
“Ship me every part you have got on WhatsApp proper now,” the person instructed down the cellphone, she recounted to Insider in a latest interview. “We’ll drop a pin and you are going to come there.”
Two days earlier than, a narrative had appeared in The New York Times a couple of 31-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia — Vierra — whose American household was accusing her ex-husband, a Saudi businessman, of utilizing his energy as her guardian to entice her within the nation whereas he sued for full custody of their younger daughter, Zaina.
Vierra’s ex-husband, Ghassan al-Haidari, had refused to resume her residency card — successfully making it unlawful for her to be within the nation and unable to journey overseas. Each girl in Saudi Arabia has a male legal guardian who can management issues from how they entry cash to who they marry.
Inside hours of that decision, Vierra was departing the espresso store with a model new Saudi residency ID card.
“A man was simply … there, and we exchanged [paperwork]. He gave me the ID. It was creepy,” Vierra mentioned.
The Occasions story appeared to jolt the Saudi authorities into motion, propelling the custody case from a home dispute to a political legal responsibility involving an American.
Vierra’s divorce and custody proceedings had been nicely documented on the time, however now that she is safely out of Saudi Arabia she feels freer to talk of her ordeal.
An escape plan
Vierra moved to Saudi Arabia in 2011 to show at a ladies’s college, and unexpectedly fell in love with al-Haidari. They married in Portugal in 2013, however divorced in January 2019 following what they each described as home unhappiness.
Round 4 months after the Occasions story was printed, Vierra misplaced the custody battle, and the stream of stories protection slowed to a drip. However her issues did not.
Vierra appealed the ruling however the Saudi decide ignored her declare, she advised Insider. At this level, the US Embassy in Riyadh intervened and Vierra and al-Haidari, supervised by the decide and US officers, met behind closed doorways to signal a joint custody settlement.
Vierra mentioned she needed to signal it, because it was her solely likelihood to be there for Zaina.
“That was basically a life sentence for me. With no energy, utterly at his mercy, unable to ever go away, I had no choice there,” she mentioned. “The system failed and I needed to reexpose my daughter to that basically dangerous, poisonous atmosphere.”
However in personal, Vierra hatched a plan.
Within the weeks that adopted, she labored to patch issues up with al-Haidari within the hopes that he would grant her and Zaina permission to go to her household in Wenatchee, Washington, in time for Christmas. She began sleeping with him once more, she mentioned.
She hoped to win again his belief, which labored: Al-Haidari softened, and granted Zaina and Vierra permission as their guardian to go to the US.
On December 15, the mom and daughter landed in Seattle and by no means returned — an outright violation of the joint custody settlement.
A US courtroom is stopping Zaina from being returned to Saudi Arabia
Some 16 months later, Vierra continues to be within the US and shut to making sure her daughter could by no means be compelled to return to Saudi Arabia — a transfer that is come within the type of a daring courtroom ruling and a brand new Washington state legislation launched to guard her.
Arriving dwelling in December 2019, Vierra sued for custody of Zaina, now 6, in a Chelan County courtroom, which dominated in her favor on February 8 this yr.
The courtroom mentioned it couldn’t return Zaina to Saudi Arabia, as the dominion typically fails to make sure primary human rights in courtroom.
“A authorized system that’s set as much as not solely fail to guard however to disclaim primary human rights … just isn’t a authorized system whose youngster custody legal guidelines this State can honor,” Decide Kristen Ferrera wrote in a ruling seen by Insider.
The judgment is critical in that it breaks with a US pledge to return kids to their nation of origin, as a part of the Hague Abduction Conference.
“Usually the US respects courtroom orders, particularly in terms of youngster custody in overseas international locations,” Vierra mentioned. “The judgment is extremely courageous, however it’s extremely susceptible on enchantment.”
Because the case elapsed, Vierra was additionally lobbying her representatives to introduce distinctive laws that may defend her within the courts.
These efforts paid off, too. On April 14, the state of Washington passed HB 1042, requiring courts concerned in overseas custody disputes to think about that nation’s human-rights report earlier than making a call. The legislation particularly considers whether or not that nation punishes individuals for his or her faith, politics, or sexual orientation with the demise penalty — which Saudi Arabia typically does.
“This new legislation will save lives,” State Rep. My-Linh Thai, one of many invoice’s sponsors, advised Insider. “I’m happy that Ms. Bethany Vierra and her daughter Zaina are usually not put at risk of shedding their lives whereas combating a custody case.”
In the meantime, al-Haidari is interesting Ferrera’s ruling, however Vierra believes his authorized argument incorporates weaknesses that will not stand as much as HB 1042. “It utterly adjustments every part,” Vierra mentioned of the brand new state legislation.
Al-Haidari and his lawyer declined Insider’s requests for remark. The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, didn’t reply to requests for remark.
‘We should keep away from exposing Zaina to those traditions’
After the New York Occasions story was printed, different Western information retailers reported on Vierra’s plight, framing her expertise as a cautionary story concerning the Saudi guardianship system.
Saudi guardianship constraints have eased remarkably since late 2019, however Vierra’s custody battle got here at a time when the dominion’s fame was taking a hammering.
Months earlier than, the CIA had concluded that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The dominion had additionally been criticized for clamping down on freedom of expression, and denying primary rights to ladies and minorities.
All through the case, Vierra accused the Saudi courts of discrimination, saying she was being unfairly handled as a result of she was a girl and a non-Muslim. Vierra mentioned the decide disregarded video proof that confirmed her husband being verbally abusive to her and proof that he took medicine in entrance of Zaina.
Within the custody ruling, the decide mentioned Vierra was unfit to father or mother as a result of she was a westerner. “The mom is new to Islam and a foreigner on this nation and embraces customs and traditions in the best way she was raised,” the decide wrote, according to The New York Times. “We should keep away from exposing [Zaina] to those traditions.”
Vierra additionally mentioned she was topic to “creepy threats.”
In a single occasion, days after receiving her new Saudi residency ID card, Vierra was at her yoga studio when a Saudi man arrived on the door. Vierra acknowledged him instantly, she mentioned, from events hosted by Western authorities officers within the diplomatic quarter.
“We helped you along with your ID, so now you are going to delete what you are writing on-line, out of your PhD, your human-rights stuff, it’s essential to delete that,” the person mentioned, in line with Vierra.
It had been a secret — albeit poorly stored — amongst her expat buddies that Vierra had written about human rights in Saudi Arabia for publications like The Daily Beast and Al-Monitor beneath a pen title — Bayan Perazzo — and that her PhD centered closely on human rights.
However “he had no strategy to know what had occurred,” she advised Insider.
In March 2019, the pro-government newspaper Arab Information additionally fabricated a quote from her, she mentioned, recalling feeling rattled however unable to talk out.
The newspaper cited her as saying: “I am not attempting to politicize my divorce; this isn’t a guardian difficulty” in response to her high-profile custody difficulty, in addition to: “I’m right here to remain in Saudi Arabia.” Vierra advised Insider she mentioned no such issues. Arab Information didn’t reply to Insider’s request for remark.
Vierra mentioned that through the custody trial, she additionally needed to be cautious of what she mentioned to keep away from the wrath of Saudi Arabia’s courts and armed forces of Twitter bots, which have been reported to be sanctioned by the Saudi state.
Vierra says she was hounded by these accounts, and stays so to today. Final month, Hussain al-Gawi, one in every of Saudi Arabia’s hottest journalists, accused Vierra of being a US spy.
The US Embassy is ‘incessantly concerned’ in Saudi-American marriages
Vierra’s case supplies a glimpse into how the State Division reacts when People run into authorized bother in Saudi Arabia.
“It occurs on a regular basis with these [Saudi-American] marriages,” David Rundell, a former chief of mission on the US Embassy in Riyadh, advised Insider. “The embassy is incessantly concerned in these circumstances.”
Vierra advised Insider that a number of US Embassy employees accompanied her to hearings as a present of solidarity, and Rundell mentioned this isn’t uncommon, and never distinctive to US embassies and consulates all over the world.
“We go to the courtroom and we make it clear that the US is supporting its citizen, and we might recognize if this girl was allowed to depart,” he mentioned. “It is normally not an issue of the mom leaving, it is normally an issue of the kid.”
However whereas the US Embassy supported her in some methods, it fell quick in others, Vierra mentioned. She mentioned her ex-husband was abusive and that she requested the embassy to guard her daughter in Might 2019.
“I went to the US Embassy with my daughter … and requested safety from the State Division. We had been there for 12 hours, and on the finish it was rejected,” she mentioned.
All through the custody case, the embassy additionally repeatedly advised her that its fingers had been tied till due authorized course of was accomplished within the Saudi courts.
Solely when Vierra claimed that her enchantment to the custody ruling was being ignored did US officers broach the topic with Saudi counterparts, she mentioned.
“The embassy needs to precise its severe concern concerning the implications of the courtroom’s reasoning on this case, which seems to be prejudicial to the rights of Americans,” the embassy wrote to the Saudi International Ministry on July 18, 2019, in line with a duplicate of the letter reviewed by Insider.
A State Division spokeswoman advised Insider: “We take critically our duty to help US residents overseas, and to offer all acceptable consular companies.”
“The welfare and security of US residents overseas is likely one of the highest priorities of the Division of State,” the spokeswoman mentioned, including that she couldn’t talk about the particulars of Vierra’s explicit case resulting from privateness issues.
An finish in sight
Vierra, now 33, seems to be secure to maintain Zaina within the US. She now lives in Cashmere, a metropolis in Washington, and works as an advocate for People trapped in Saudi Arabia beneath circumstances like her personal, seems to be dwelling and dry.
Al-Haidari is interesting Decide Ferrera’s ruling, however Vierra believes he will not reach Washington state due to HB 1024, the state legislation handed in April to guard her.
“That invoice that’s like an end-all. He can enchantment, he can do no matter he desires however with that legislation in Washington state, he will lose,” she mentioned.
“We’re actually speaking about money and time,” she mentioned. “The headache shall be ongoing, however I am right here, and he or she’s right here, and I actually suppose, typically I overlook to simply pause and take that in.”