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News
Mother wins decision in custody case that straddles two countries

WENATCHEE — After a divorce proceeding that began more than three years ago on the other side of the world, a Cashmere native is one step closer to custody of her daughter following a local court decision that found her basic human rights were violated by a foreign court.

A Chelan County judge has ruled that Saudi Arabian courts did not provide a Bethany AlHaidari with due process in a custody battle with her ex-husband. Custody of the child will be determined locally.

Bethany AlHaidari in December 2019 fled Saudi Arabia with her daughter, Zaina, to Chelan County, where she has family, after a two-year divorce and custody dispute with ex-husband Ghassan AlHaidari. Bethany AlHaidari through her attorney Scott Volyn in January 2020 asked Chelan County Superior Court to allow custody to be determined in Chelan County, departing from typical international custody dispute protocol, on the grounds that Saudi laws violate human rights.

Chelan County Superior Court Judge Kristin Ferrera on Feb. 9 ruled in favor of Bethany AlHaidari and a parenting plan will be determined in Superior Court, provided Ghassan AlHaidari doesn’t successfully appeal.

“A legal system that is set up to not only fail to protect but to deny basic human rights as a matter of course, such as the right to due process and the right of a parent to a child, based solely on that parent’s gender, national origin, and/or religion, is not a legal system whose child custody laws this State can honor,” Ferrera wrote in her decision.

In an interview, Bethany AlHaidari, 33, said, “Reading the court’s opinion and the factual presentation of events was sort of a moment of breathing in a bit of justice after such a long time of not being properly heard.”

She added, “It just feels to me like justice after a long time of injustice.”

Bethany AlHaidari splits her time between Wenatchee and Washington, D.C., and works as a human rights consultant, operates a charity called saudijustice.org, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in international rights law.

To say it’s been a long road would be an understatement.

In 2011, then Bethany Vierra moved to Saudi Arabia to teach. She met Ghassan AlHaidari the following year. They wed in 2013 and in 2014 she gave birth to their daughter, Zaina.

Their marriage fell apart in September 2017 and a Saudi court granted them a divorce in January 2019, igniting a bitter custody battle, according to Ferrera’s decision.

In her decision, Ferrera included a description of events, which has been detailed in Superior Court documents filed by Bethany and Ghassan after the current case was filed, that led up to her ruling.

A Saudi judge refused to order Ghassan AlHaidari to renew Bethany AlHaidari’s legal residency in the country. That was set to expire soon, and in February 2019 she no longer had legal status in the country, meaning she couldn’t take legal actions or access her bank account at the risk of being deported or jailed.

Her residency was restored only after The New York Times published a story that raised awareness about her situation.

In April 2019, Ghassan AlHaidari sought to remove her custody rights by alleging she worked full time, put their daughter in school instead of staying home with her and claimed Bethany AlHaidari had a learning disability. He sought to give custody to his mother, with whom he was living.

His legal team attempted to show a judge a video of his ex-wife doing yoga while uncovered in the city of Riyadh’s diplomatic quarters. The judge refused but the video was circulated on social media and she was investigated for criminal charges.

Ghassan also accused her of adultery and of insulting Islam and Saudi Arabia, according to Ferrera’s decision. Both are crimes punishable by death in the Middle Eastern country.

Custody was granted to Ghassan AlHaidari’s mother, despite testimony from his sister who argued their mother was an unfit parent, but the matter was hardly finished.

Bethany AlHaidari sought further help from the media, U.S. government and human rights organizations. Her ex-husband filed a complaint with the Saudi government alleging she was refusing visitation; the government issued an arrest warrant for her, along with a 10-year travel ban prohibiting her from leaving the country.

The custody case went to a civil court to force a settlement; the head of the court didn’t award custody to either, effectively giving Ghassan AlHaidari rights to the child, but none to Bethany AlHaidari. She would not be permitted to travel with Zaina, get her identification, take her to the hospital or enroll her in school.

Bethany AlHaidari agreed to reconcile with Ghassan AlHaidari to convince him to afford her custody rights. She forfeited her financial rights to child support in order to get the right to travel.

The final settlement in late 2019 provided both parents with visitation rights and equal custody. In December 2019, Ghassan AlHaidari granted her permission to travel to the U.S. with Zaina to visit family in Chelan County. She has not returned.

U.S. courts, when determining child custody in cases that cross state boundaries, typically follow rulings of the original court to avoid conflicts. When the case involves a foreign country, the country is treated as a state. However, courts can sidestep this if there’s a human rights violation.

“At the crux of this case is a very basic and complex question: What are the fundamental principles of human rights?” Ferrera wrote. “Statutory and case law in Washington and the United States have not clearly defined these principles as they relate to child custody laws in foreign states, leaving trial courts, as the arbiters of initial child custody determinations, at a disadvantage when tasked with answering this question.”

She noted the importance of respecting and honoring cultural differences and the laws of other countries, but said state law can’t deny someone the right to due process and the right of a parent to her child by enforcing orders from a country which “denies her these rights based solely on her gender, national origin, and religion. To honor such child custody laws would deny our state and country’s Constitutional rights to a litigant in our state’s courts.”

Bethany AlHaidari called Ferrera’s ruling “brave” and said she’s proud of Washington for taking a stand for human rights.

“I think that it is something worth saying is that this court just made a decision that could really, really protect so many people’s lives,” she said, cautioning that Ferrera’s decision is not yet case law and could be overturned at appeal.

Volyn called it a “difficult” and “powerful” decision because it requires the court to balance important factors.

“One is our longstanding principle of observing the decisions of court systems other than our own outside of our country and giving them proper respect and deference, but that reaches a limit,” Volyn said. “And it reaches a limit in comparison with our own civil justice system and the rights of our citizens and the way in which we’ve designed our process now over 200 years or more to provide for fairness and equality and equal justice.”

The next step is to develop a permanent parenting plan.

“Given that the mother and the daughter have lived now in the United States since approximately December of 2019 and the father has had no contact other than video or telephonic, electronic contact, it certainly augers in favor of retaining that stability,” Volyn said.

Ghassan AlHaidari filed a response Feb. 23 in Superior Court stating he did not agree with Ferrera’s assertion that Washington was an appropriate venue for the custody case to be heard and that he did not agree with a proposed parenting plan.

He made clear his stance in earlier filings with Superior Court when he defended the Saudi legal system, saying it ultimately provided both parents with shared custody.

“[Bethany’s] account of how this result was produced ignores the result produced, i.e. an agreed shared custody arrangement,” Ghassan wrote.

He added that the Saudi court’s ruling should be upheld.

“Washington law works differently, but not so differently that a Washington court would be warranted in finding that the Saudi Arabian legal system violates fundamental principles of human rights,” Ghassan wrote.

Bethany AlHaidari is currently helping push House Bill 1042 through the state Legislature that will give courts more authority in cases like hers.

“It makes it really hard in cases where you have authoritarian regimes which punish apostasy or political dissent with the death penalty — or homosexuality — and those things are really necessary to take into consideration, but they’re not possible as it currently stands,” she said.

The bill was passed Feb. 25 by the Senate Committee on Law and Justice and advanced to the Senate Rules Committee.


Local
Drug-law court decision has big impact: Police stop possession arrests; courts to review thousands of cases

WENATCHEE — A Washington State Supreme Court decision striking down a drug possession law is having a big and immediate impact on police investigations and court cases.

Police in Chelan and Douglas counties have stopped making arrests for simple possession of illegal drugs. Thousands of court cases will have to be reexamined and, in many instances, dismissed, along with other ramifications.

Five of the Supreme Court’s nine justices struck down the law on Feb. 25 because it did not require prosecutors to prove defendants knowingly possessed illegal drugs.

The ruling came after the Supreme Court heard the case of Shannon Blake, a Spokane woman who in 2016 was found in possession of methamphetamine after she was given a pair of jeans by a friend and was unaware there was meth in the coin pocket.

The ruling did not decriminalize illegal drugs — that’s a decision made only by state legislators — but it has left a loophole in state law: It’s not currently illegal to possess hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamine.

In the meantime, the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Wenatchee Police Department and East Wenatchee Police Department are not arresting people for unlawful possession.

Court cases and consequences

Washington has been a “strict liability” state in regard to drug possession since 1981. That essentially meant it didn’t matter whether a defendant knew they possessed drugs. Washington was the only state in the country that did not require prosecutors prove a defendant knowingly possessed illegal drugs.

The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which acts as a liaison between county prosecutors and higher levels of government, has not made public whether it will appeal the Supreme Court’s decision. But prosecutors in Chelan and Douglas counties have already begun dismissing unlawful possession cases.

Several officials in the local law and justice community said that the loophole could be closed if lawmakers add an element that requires prosecutors prove knowing, intentional possession.

Repercussions of the decision, if the change stands, are far-reaching.

“There’s a big impact from the decision in a lot of different areas that I think everyone’s still figuring out and realizing all the different ways that the decision is going to require different kinds of actions by the court,” said Chelan County Superior Court Judge Lesley Allan.

Lesley Allan

Chelan County Superior Court judge

Assuming the decision stands as written, she said, all pending cases with unlawful possession charges will be dismissed and any defendants held in custody solely for a unlawful possession charge will be released; previous convictions for unlawful possession could be vacated.

Defense attorney Jeremy Ford, who leads the Counsel for Defense of Chelan County, estimated the number of cases affected by the change to be in the thousands.

To make matters more complicated, courts might need to resentence anyone who’s been convicted of an unrelated crime, but had previously been convicted of unlawful possession. That’s because state sentencing guidelines require previous criminal history to be factored into jail and prison terms. More prior felonies, more time.

“Presumably, those folks will need to be, if they’re in prison, brought back from prison, to be resentenced and exclude any possession convictions from their offender score,” Allan said.

Because of the court decision, more than 30 unlawful possession cases were dismissed Thursday and Friday in Chelan County Superior Court. Fifteen similar cases were dismissed with prejudice in Douglas County Superior Court.

And then there are “collateral consequences,” Allan said, or a long lasting negative effect. For instance, people who’ve completed a jail or prison sentence for unlawful possession may want the conviction removed from their record so they regain rights lost due to a felony conviction.

Even further down the rabbit hole comes the question of whether court costs and fines paid to the county and state as part of an unlawful possession conviction will need to be reimbursed.

“Because if there wasn’t a conviction, they never would’ve been ordered to pay the court fines in the first place,” Allan said. “And if so, where is that money going to come from?”

The absence of an unlawful possession statute also applies to juveniles.

“Of course, juveniles can’t possess marijuana or alcohol … but now they may in fact be able to legally possess cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin,” Allan said. “Which is pretty significant for the youth of our community to not have any restriction on that and not have any ability of law enforcement or the courts to try and steer kids away from those kinds of drugs.”

Policing

A quandary for law enforcement is what to do with illegal drugs when they’re found on a suspect during an arrest not directly related to unlawful possession, like a DUI. Chance and other law enforcement officials said the drugs will be confiscated and then destroyed.

“Because the other thing that we get into there is once it has legally come into the possession of law enforcement we’re not going to get into the business of then distributing narcotics,” Chance said.

Chance said he’s concerned about broader investigations that begin with an unlawful possession arrest. In 2020, Wenatchee police impounded 129 vehicles for the purpose of obtaining a search warrant. Of those vehicles, 109 were impounded to be searched for drugs and 90% of them contained drugs, Chance said. He added a large number yielded other items, like stolen property and seven illegal firearms.

“We would not have the opportunity to locate those illegally possessed firearms under the current circumstances,” Chance said.

Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett was unhappy with the Supreme Court’s decision and is exploring the feasibility of adding a county ordinance that would make possessing illegal drugs a gross misdemeanor.

“I can’t believe that’s going to be beneficial to our quality of life here,” Burnett said of the court’s decision.

He’d like to see lawmakers add the term “knowingly” to the now former unlawful possession statute.

Brian Burnett

Chelan County sheriff

“For me the right thing would be for the legislature to enact that and then we’re back in business,” Burnett said.

Drug court

Particularly affected is Chelan County Superior Court’s Drug Court, a diversion program in which defendants may have their active drug-related crimes dismissed upon completion of a rigorous, court-run recovery plan.

“I’m happy that people get their charge dismissed but I’m also sad because we got to see people thrive in drug court,” said Sunshine Poliquin, defense attorney for the participants.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, seven of the program’s nine participants were charged with drug possession crimes, but those have been dismissed because of the Supreme Court decision, said Judge Kristin Ferrera, who presides over drug court.

The two remaining participants are moving forward in the program with a diminished support network.

“One of the benefits of drug court is having the support of the other participants and having participants that are in different phases,” Ferrera said.

Kristin Ferrera

Chelan County Superior Court judge

Drug court has four phases. It’s current participants are in phase one and phase two.

“So we aren’t going to have anybody in those later phases to help support and provide guidance, unless we have people that are voluntarily coming in,” Ferrera said. “But we just won’t have that same camaraderie that we’ve been having for the last couple of years.”

New participants are expected to be enrolled in the program, though there could be changes to screening procedures that preempt acceptance into drug court.

As for the participants whose cases were dismissed, they could continue to attend drug court as members of the public.

“But I am going to ask, ‘How do you feel about this?’ because I’m curious — of course it’s great to have this off your record — but that was going to happen anyway,” Ferrera said.


Education
Teachers, childcare workers eligible for COVID-19 vaccine in Washington following presidential directive

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday that educators, school staff and licensed childcare workers would be added to the current tier of residents eligible to be vaccinated in Washington.

“This directive will be carried out through existing providers and the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which operates through national pharmacies and independent pharmacy chains,” Inslee said in a news release.

Inslee’s news about teacher vaccination followed an earlier announcement in the day from President Joe Biden, who said the country will have enough vaccines by the end of May to vaccinate every adult in the United States. Biden also directed states to prioritize teachers and childcare workers, with the expectation that they receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in March.

Currently, health care and frontline workers, as well as all residents 65 and older or 50 and older in multigenerational households, are eligible to get the vaccine in Washington. There has not been enough vaccine supply to offer doses to every person currently eligible for the vaccine in Washington.

Unlike many states, such as Idaho, which has made vaccines available to all teachers, Inslee has argued that it is more important to get older people vaccinated before opening availability to teachers. But significant pressure has been building on him to change his stance from teacher unions and politicians from both parties.

At an event in Spokane last week, Inslee defended his decision to prioritize residents aged 65 and up.

“We have to take care of those 65 and up, because they represent 90% of fatalities,” he said.

Pre-K and K-12 school staff and childcare workers were next to be prioritized in a tiered ranking of essential workers in the state’s vaccination plan, but the federal announcement means a faster timeline than the Department of Health planned.

The department is trying to get clarity from the Biden Administration about vaccine supply and equitable access to support these plans, according to a Department of Health news release.

“Vaccine supply will likely primarily be delivered through the federal pharmacy program, and the directive indicates all vaccine providers should prioritize these workers,” the department statement said. “DOH acknowledges these announcements may cause a mix of excitement, concern, and confusion for different communities.”

The department plans to share more updates on the expanded vaccine access in the coming days, and the state’s Phase Finder tool will not be updated immediately to reflect these changes.

Inslee said teachers and licensed child care workers can schedule vaccine appointments “with providers right away.”

“We will continue the current state plans and goals to focus on those most at risk, including older adults and those facing the greatest equity gaps,” Inslee said in a news release. “To that end, I will soon be announcing when our state vaccine prioritization will be moving to include critical workers in certain congregate settings including those who work in grocery stores, farmworkers, food processors, bus drivers, corrections workers and others.”

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal expects the announcement to speed up the timeline for school districts statewide to return to or expand in-person learning. Currently about 36% of Washington students are learning in person.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has partnered with Kaiser Permanente already to expedite vaccines for teachers statewide, and with this program, the federal pharmacy program and local partnerships, teachers and health care workers statewide should be able to access at least one dose of a vaccine this month, according to OSPI.

“The data and research show that if schools follow all health and safety requirements, they can safely reopen without widespread vaccination within the school community,” Reykdal said in a news release. “However, like President Biden, we know vaccination of school employees is an additional layer of protection that will provide comfort to staff, students, and families.”


News
Chelan-Douglas Health official cautiously optimistic as COVID-19 cases decline
Provided photo 

Luke Davies

Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator

WENATCHEE — Chelan and Douglas counties are rounding the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic, and once the area reaches 60% to 70% herd immunity, normal life may return by the end of the year, the area’s top public health official says.

With the Biden administration promising over 140 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of March, half of the needed progress would be reached by June, Luke Davies, health administrator for the Chelan-Douglas Health District, said at a Tuesday news conference.

“As of right now, there is no concern as long as we keep wearing masks and see the case counts drop,” Davies said. “But that’s ruling out the factor of new variants coming that could create significant problems and reinfect individuals that have already been infected.”

The COVID-19 variant P.1 from Brazil, which has been shown to reinfect individuals who have had COVID-19, has been identified in one case in the state. Davies said people should continue to wear masks, social distance, and wash their hands work just as well against the variants.

About 17,500 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered at the Town Toyota Center mass vaccination as of Feb. 27, according to the state Department of Health. More than 70,000 doses have been given at all four mass sites.

Davies said this is an incredible achievement for the area. The Wenatchee site plans to be done with most of the second doses for the first group in a little less than three weeks. If vaccine allocation remains the same, the Town Toyota Center site can open up more first-dose appointments soon, Davies said.

Davies said health officials are working to smooth the process of signing up for and getting the second shot.

“Originally, we asked people to come back same time same place for the second dose, but a lot of people were getting so excited for their second dose they were all showing up early in the morning and creating a line,” he said.

Second-dose appointments now require registering with a private link people should receive in in an email, Davies said. If you have not received the email or need help signing up, come to the site three weeks after your first shot and someone will help you get registered, Davies said.

The Wenatchee site has since extended their parking and processing to Walla Walla Park across the street, Davies said.

The DOH and the governor’s office have not yet set a date for when COVID-19 vaccines will go to the next group — essential workers like teachers and farmworkers, according to Davies.

Local health jurisdictions across the state along with the DOH and governor’s office, will be discussing this further this week to decide when this may happen, Davies said.

The single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine received emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Feb. 27 and a total of 60,000 doses have made their way to Washington state, Davies said.

“[The vaccine] is a very good and very effective vaccine, and it’s going to be really important to utilize that single dose in areas where the logistics are a lot less manageable,” Davies said.

The supply chain and allocation has not yet been established, but in the future, centralized sites like Town Toyota Center will focus on vaccines that are more complicated to administer, like the Pfizer vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be used for harder-to-reach populations, according to Davies.

One such group may be the approximately 50,000 agricultural workers in the state that will need the vaccine, according to Davies. Davies said he has been on calls with the DOH and other local health districts to draft plans, but nothing has been finalized yet.

As vaccine supply increases, the health district wants to use mobile clinics to vaccinate these workers as quickly as possible, Davies said. But it will most likely occur during or after the move to tier 2 or tier 3 of DOH’s vaccine rollout plan.


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