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House Subcommittee Hears Testimony on International Child Abduction

On July 9, the House Government Reform Wellness and Human Rights Subcommittee held a hearing on international child abduction with a special focus on American children held in Saudi Arabia.

International child abduction usually involves a child taken to another country by one parent and kept there illegally. The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction calls for the immediate return of children to the country of residence prior to the abduction, but this cannot be guaranteed. Though 53 countries, including the U.S., have ratified the treaty, international abductions continue even in signatory countries. Recently, there has been growing concern about Saudi fathers abducting children from their American mothers. This was the topic of a Senate hearing on June 26 (see The Source, 6/27/03). Saudi Arabia is not party to the convention.

Sarah Saga, an American citizen, described her personal experience. She was abducted by her Saudi father as a child, and held against her will in Saudi Arabia until her escape. By that time, she had been forced to marry a Saudi man and had two small children. Ms. Saga said the difficulties of her married life, including her husband’s physical abuse of the children, led to her decision to flee. Early one morning, she and the children sought refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. According to Ms. Saga, consulate staff at first said they could not help her since she had “nothing on file.” Later she was told that she could leave, but not with her children. Under pressure from both American and Saudi officials, Ms. Saga said, she signed a paper relinquishing custody of her children. “No one ever talked to me about my legal rights,” she noted.

Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty confirmed the State Department’s position “that a child abducted from the U.S. in violation of custody rights recognized under U.S. law should be returned.” She said that, ultimately, the decision rests with local courts. Ms. Harty pointed out the limits of the Hague Convention, which “does not decide custody” but rather “decides in which country a custody determination should be made.” Furthermore, the Convention applies only to countries party to it. Ms. Harty stressed the importance of learning about Saudi law before going to Saudi Arabia. She recommended the information on the State Department’s website, www.travel.state.gov, which includes details on Saudi law, such as the prohibition on a married woman leaving the country without her husband’s permission.

Concerning Ms. Saga’s experience at the consulate, Ms. Harty explained that Ms. Saga’s children were not considered American citizens and did not have American passports. Ms. Harty added that Saudi officials were allowed to come to speak to Ms. Saga at the consulate because “it would be more comfortable.” Contrary to Ms. Saga’s testimony, Ms. Harty stated that the Consulate General in Jeddah advised Ms. Saga not to sign the document relinquishing custody of her children.

Ms. Saga’s mother, Debbie Dornier, testified on Ms. Saga’s abduction by her Saudi father in 1985, and explained her own frustration with her daughter’s experience at the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. “The consulate was unwilling to represent her interests,” she said. “No one wanted to help Sarah.”

Ranking Member Rep. Diane Watson (D-CA), herself a former Ambassador, was clearly concerned. “Our government has really let you down,” she said. “This problem is not unusual in countries like that. Wherever we have an embassy and someone seeks refuge, there should be a procedure.” Rep. Watson said that embassies should walk through the steps with people so that their rights as American citizens would be clear. She suggested this procedure could be developed through legislation and she pledged to “pursue this issue.”

Subcommittee Chair Dan Burton (R-IN) agreed. “We have a long way to go,” he said. “I’m convinced there are hundreds, maybe thousands who would like to come back.” Rep. Burton expressed the need to “convince the State Department we ought to be tougher,” adding that “American law must not be superceded by Saudi or any other law.”

Rep. Burton noted that no one from the Saudi Embassy attended the hearing, even though the Embassy had indicated that a representative would be present.

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