Jordanian Widow's Legal Tangle
Last Desperate Appeal to be Filed September 21
by Barbara G. Baker ISTANBUL, September 19 (Compass) -- Confirmation of a new warrant for the imminent arrest of Jordanian Christian widow Siham Qandah marked an alarming turn this week in the mother's legal battle to retain custody of her two minor children. Two days ago, an Islamic court in northern Jordan ordered Qandah to turn over her daughter Rawan, 15, and son Fadi, 13, to a Muslim guardian within three days or go to jail. The Irbid lower court's ruling violated a restraining order issued by the Supreme Islamic Court in Amman on August 3. Under the restraining order, the arrest warrant against Qandah and removal of her children are both stayed until the higher court first rules on a pending case to change the children's guardianship. But the Irbid Islamic court reportedly ignored the restraining order, despite the fact that Qandah's lawyers had put it on file in Irbid more than six weeks ago. "Without the hearts and prayers of Christians around the world for us, I would have already lost the children," Qandah told Compass a few hours after she learned of the new arrest order. "But God always opens the way in front of us, delaying these court decisions against us." Qandah's lawyer is poised to file a new appeal when the Irbid courts open at 8 a.m. on September 21, after the Friday-Saturday weekend recess. "This is our only chance to gain a little time, maybe one or two more weeks," Qandah said. Over the summer months, the prominent Amman law firm which had agreed to represent Qandah "pro bono" (free of charge) appeared to be backpedaling on the case. When Prince Mired bin Raed of the Jordanian royal family met with Qandah in May, he commented that the Christian widow appeared to have suffered from a lack of expert legal counsel on her case. So at the prince's request, his personal attorney in the Petra law firm began researching the case. During an interview in his Amman law offices on May 22, Petra lawyer Mohammed Shaheen al-Tamimi told Compass that his firm had obtained "documents to prove" that the Muslim guardian of Qandah's children was "disqualified to exercise custody" and had "misused his authority." Al-Tamimi had estimated that he would win a court decision within a month to remove Abdullah al-Muhtadi as the children's guardian, saying he had "illegally appropriated" about $20,000 from the children's trust funds which they were to inherit at age 18. On June 16, a representative of the Petra firm confirmed by telephone from Amman that they were about to file legal action on Qandah's case "during the coming few days." The lawyer specified that the presiding judge of the Supreme Islamic Court of Jordan was giving "all his support" for the case. But a week later, investigating lawyers learned that in fact al-Muhtadi's withdrawal checks from the children's trust funds carried the signature of this judge, who is a relative of attorney al-Tamimi. The judge himself later informed Qandah that he and his assistant had signed the guardian's checks from the children's orphan benefits. One of the unexplained withdrawals was for 6,000 JD, more than $8,800. After this discovery, the Petra firm appeared to shelve its efforts to press for a "quick resolution" on the case. Finally on July 26, when Qandah was facing imminent arrest, the firm filed an "administrative appeal" to the Supreme Islamic Court, requesting an investigation of al-Muhtadi's handling of the children's financial affairs. To date, the Islamic court has not responded to this appeal. In the meantime, the Irbid Court of First Instance had again issued orders to jail Qandah for 30 days if she failed to turn over her children to their Muslim guardian by July 26. Qandah and her children live a few miles from Irbid in the small northern town of Husn. After two consecutive appeals filed by Qandah's local lawyer were refused by the Irbid court, the desperate widow found another Amman law firm willing to represent her. These new lawyers won the restraining order issued seven weeks ago by the Supreme Islamic Court. With four lawyers now working on several legal briefs in both Irbid and Amman, Qandah faces about $5,000 in lawyers' fees in the near future. All the cases focus on the questionable trust fund withdrawals, changing the children's guardianship, certifying her daughter's legal maturity under Islamic law and appealing the forced transfer of child custody from their mother to their Muslim uncle. Jordan's Islamic courts will consider all the pending cases. The first hearing, to change the children's guardianship, has been set to begin in Amman on September 21. With the whereabouts of al-Muhtadi unknown, Qandah placed an ad in the local newspaper on September 14, as required by Jordanian law, to summon her brother to the court hearing. Estranged from Qandah and the rest of his Christian family since he converted to Islam as a teenager, al-Muhtadi is the children's maternal uncle. Shortly after Qandah's soldier husband died in 1994, an Islamic court produced a certificate alleging that her husband had secretly converted from Christianity to Islam three years before his death. The claim could not be contested, so under Jordanian law, their two children automatically became Muslims. But as a Christian, the mother could not collect their monthly military benefits. So Qandah asked al-Muhtadi to serve as their court-designated guardian. But her brother often proved unwilling to transfer the children's benefits to Qandah, and three years later he opened a court case demanding custody so he could raise them as Muslims. After four years of court proceedings, Qandah lost her last Supreme Court appeal in February 2002, and was ordered to turn over her children to al-Muhtadi. Over the past 18 months, the widow and her children have gone into hiding several times to avoid police enforcement of the ruling, disrupting their lives and schooling for weeks at a time. The children are blacklisted by court order from leaving Jordan.
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