American woman in Saudi Arabia loses custody battle despite showing videos of ex's alleged abuse

By Jason Silverstein

/ CBS News

An American woman in Saudi Arabia lost a custody battle for her 4-year-old daughter, despite reportedly showing videos of her ex-husband's alleged drug use and verbal abuse. A Saudi court rejected the testimony from Bethany Vierra, in part, because she did not have male witnesses backing her up.

A judge on Sunday awarded custody of Vierra's daughter, Zeina, to the mother of Vierra's ex-husband, The New York Times reports. In the custody battle, Vierra submitted videos that allegedly showed her ex-husband smoking hashish, talking about marijuana use and screaming at Vierra — all while their daughter was in the room.

The ex-husband argued in court that Vierra was unfit to raise the girl. As part of his evidence, he submitted photos of her in a bikini and yoga pants — clothing that is forbidden in Saudi Arabia. He also said that, because Vierra runs a yoga studio in Riyadh, she would not have time to devote to the child, according to the Times. The ex-husband admitted to drug use but said Vierra gave him the drugs, which she denied.

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"It's videos versus male witnesses," Vierra told the Times. "They wouldn't, in some cases, even look at the evidence that I had. It was just completely disregarded because he 'swore to God.' It's all been infuriating."

An attorney representing Vierra did not return messages from CBS News. Vierra's ex-husband has not been publicly identified.

The case shines a light on systematic gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia, where a guardianship system gives men control over many aspects of women's lives. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has introduced some recent reforms, like ending a ban on women driving, but many restrictions remain on women's rights. Women need permission from male guardians to travel, obtain passports and even receive certain medical procedures.

Vierra lived in Washington State and moved to Saudi Arabia in 2011 to teach at a women's university. She married a businessman she met there, but asked for a divorce after he had allegedly become abusive.

Vierra's case first gained attention when The New York Times reported this year that her ex-husband used Saudi Arabia's guardianship laws to essentially trap her in the country. The ex-husband reportedly let Vierra's residency expire, which froze her out of her bank account and left her unable to leave the country. Under Saudi law, the daughter was not allowed to travel without permission from her father.

First published on July 15, 2019 / 5:38 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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