Saudi Custody Cases Pose Problems; Difficulties Strain U.S. Relations

Article excerpt

Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

An American-born woman trying to flee with her two children from her Saudi husband told a congressional hearing yesterday she received little support or guidance from U.S. consular officials as she was pressured to leave her children behind in Saudi Arabia last month.

Sarah Waheed Saga, who was herself kidnapped by her Saudi father and taken to Saudi Arabia as a child, told the House Government Reform subcommittee on wellness and human rights that three U.S. consular officers in Jidda stood by as Saudi government officials insisted she sign a document waiving all custody rights to her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter if she left the country.

"Nobody at all talked to me about my legal rights," Mrs. Saga told the subcommittee, her voice breaking on occasion. "They gave me information on my passport and that's all. Nobody talked to me about what I should or shouldn't do."

Faced with what she described as abuse from her husband, she decided to take the painful course of departure without her children

Subcommittee Chairman Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, called Mrs. Saga's case a "tragedy" and said it was only the latest in a series of bitter disputes with Saudi Arabia in child-abduction and disputed custody cases.

Saudi Arabia has refused to sign an international convention on child-abduction disputes, he said.

Women like Mrs. Saga live in fear of their fathers, husbands and male guardians and "it is time that the American government did something about it," he said.

The issue has become a sore point in U.S.-Saudi relations, already strained by differences over Iraq and criticism by some in the United States that Saudi Arabia has not done enough to curb international terrorism or combat Islamic fundamentalist sentiment at home.

"We continue to foster a relationship with a country that abuses not only its own citizens but American citizens as well," said Rep. Diane Watson, California Democrat.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said the State Department has pressed Saudi Arabia and other Middle East regimes in disputed custody cases, with some results to show for it.

She said seven Americans held against their will in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria have been reunited with their U.S. relatives after a trip she made to the region in January. She made a second trip to Saudi Arabia in April, and three more disputed cases are expected to be resolved soon involving Saudi Arabia. …