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US Vows to Resolve Child Custody Cases with Saudi Arabia - 2002-12-05

U.S. lawmakers are vowing to keep working to resolve a number of child custody cases involving American-born children who have been kidnapped to Saudi Arabia by one of their parents. But they say the Saudi government has not been very cooperative.

Although Congress adjourned for the year last month, the House Government Reform Committee Wednesday held the latest in a series of hearings into the child custody cases.

The committee chairman, Republican Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana, says there are many cases in which American children have been kidnapped by their Saudi fathers and are being held against their will in Saudi Arabia. He says these children are subjected to intimidation and threats.

His committee subpoenaed records of the Saudi Embassy's American lawyers, lobbyists and public relations agents, seeking information about the child custody cases. But the embassy invoked diplomatic privilege and refused to turn over the documents.

Although no representative from Saudi Arabia appeared before the committee, Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel al-Jubeir told reporters Tuesday his country is making an effort to address the child custody disputes. "We have set up a task force within our Foreign Ministry under the direction of the Foreign Minister himself to deal with child custody cases," he said. "We have contacted non-government experts, third parties, to give us advice on how one can set up mechanisms to resolve these issues, because at the end of the day these are strictly personal matters between parents who happen to be in two different countries, protected and subjected to two different laws, and that complicates our ability and your government's ability to work through those laws."

Congressman Burton, furious that his subpoenas were ignored, called Mr. Al-Jubair's comments, in his words, 'a lot of hot air', saying Saudi Arabia has not returned one kidnapped child to the United States. "The Saudi government aided and abetted the kidnappings, and are harboring the fugitives," says Mr. Burton. "That is not a private matter. Their government must take responsibility."

Among those who did testify at the hearing was Pat Roush, whose two American-born daughters were abducted by her estranged Saudi husband in 1986. She is leading efforts to get the U.S. government to put pressure on the Saudis. But it is not an easy task, she says, because Washington does not want to anger its close ally. "It would offend the Saudis, and our special relationship with them would be in jeopardy," says Ms. Roush.

The congressional effort comes as the Bush administration continues to enlist the help of Saudi Arabia in the war on terrorism and possible military action against Iraq.

Although no representatives from the Bush administration appeared before the committee Wednesday, U.S. officials say they have discussed the child custody cases with Saudi officials.

Earlier this year, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the cases 'complicated and sad'. He said they were made more difficult by the fact they involve laws of a sovereign nation that the United States cannot control. Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is planning to hold its own hearings on the child custody disputes after a new Congress convenes in January.