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Saudi students escaping US justice: What we know and don’t know

Oregon State Police. (Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr)

Revelations that the Saudi Arabian government may have helped its citizens escape U.S. justice have generated national headlines, triggered a federal investigation and led to legislation introduced in Congress.

The story began with a tip that federal law enforcement agents believed the Saudis helped one of its citizens, a young man studying in Portland, flee the U.S. before his manslaughter trial.

Four more cases in Oregon soon emerged where Saudi students accused of serious crimes vanished before their trial or completing their sentence, even after some surrendered their passports to authorities.

The Oregonian/OregonLive is now tracking similar cases around the country. So far it has found 17 across eight states and Canada.

The news organization’s growing investigative series also has prompted a number of questions from readers. Here’s a breakdown.

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Q. How many Saudis have fled? How far back does this go?

A. To date, The Oregonian/OregonLive has found 17 cases across the U.S. and Canada where university students from Saudi Arabia facing serious criminal charges have disappeared. They include men, from ages 19 to 28 at the time, accused of rape, manslaughter and felony hit-and-run. Some of these cases go as far back as 1988. State and federal officials, including prosecutors, Homeland Security investigators and the FBI, have confirmed that at least eight of these defendants, including three from Oregon, have returned to Saudi Arabia or left North America. Not all of them come from affluent or politically connected families. For example, Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, accused of killing Portland teen Fallon Smart, was raised by a single mother, a kindergarten teacher, in the Saudi city of Jeddah, according to court records and interviews.

Q. What indication do we have that the Saudi government is helping its citizens avoid prison time?

A. The Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., has told The Oregonian/OregonLive that, as a policy, it will provide money for bail and legal services to any Saudi citizen accused of a crime in the U.S. who seeks assistance. In some of the documented cases, that’s exceeded $100,000. A number of Saudi defendants also have managed to leave the U.S. and Canada after they surrendered their passports to local or federal authorities, raising questions about how they escaped without official travel documents. Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service allege the Saudi government helped orchestrate Noorah’s escape in 2017 by furnishing him with an illicit passport and possibly a private plane. Prosecutors in Ohio allege a 1988 manslaughter suspect, Abulrahman Ali Al-Plaies, was spirited away by Saudi officials just days before his trial. The Saudi Embassy last week denied it helps citizens escape prosecution in the U.S. “The notion that the Saudi government actively helps citizens evade justice after they have been implicated in legal wrongdoing in the U.S. is not true,” the embassy said in a statement.

Q. Why can’t the U.S. get these suspects back?

A. Though considered a major strategic ally and trading partner, Saudi Arabia does not share an extradition treaty with the U.S. This means the Saudi government won’t automatically turn over a criminal suspect who has returned to the country. “Typically when people flee over borders it’s a question of diplomacy,” said Mary Fan, professor at the University of Washington School of Law and an expert in the area of international criminal law. “If you had the diplomatic leverage, you could have someone expel a national but that’s just assuming that the foreign government is willing to cooperate.” The Oregonian/OregonLive has spent two months asking the State Department for comment on its reports of Saudi nationals who escaped prosecution in the U.S. It has yet to receive a response.

Q. What happens to the Saudi students when they return home?

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A. That remains unknown at this time. The Oregonian/OregonLive has tried to locate and contact all of the Saudi defendants found to have disappeared in the U.S. and Canada, without success. Some of these suspects appear to have active social media accounts. One of them, Abdullah Almakrami, who fled Wisconsin and the U.S. in 2014 after he was charged with sexual assault and surrendered his passport to authorities, posted updates from Saudi Arabia later that year, according to a Milwaukee Fox News affiliate report. The Oregonian/OregonLive hasn’t been able to independently verify the details of that report.

Q. Why can’t authorities simply deny bail to any Saudi student?

A. In Oregon, for example, the only crimes for which a judge may deny bail are murder, aggravated murder and treason (though an exception can be made for some violent felony crimes). This applies to U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike. Judges in these Saudi criminal cases have tended to set high bail amounts as a way to address the suspect’s flight risk, a common practice when the defendant is a foreign national. Some have insisted on additional conditions for release, including revoking the defendant’s passport or placing the defendant under pretrial supervision. It’s worth noting that neither judges nor prosecutors in these cases appear to have known of a pattern of Saudi defendants vanishing while facing criminal charges.

Q. Some Saudis have faced their crimes and haven’t fled, right?

A. The Oregonian/OregonLive has reviewed multiple criminal cases involving students and other citizens of Saudi Arabia that have ended with convictions and prison time. Charges were dropped or reduced in others. Because there has been no way to comprehensively review all criminal cases involving Saudi nationals in the U.S., The Oregonian/OregonLive has yet to determine how common these types of disappearances are.

Q. Why are there so many Saudi students here in Oregon and in the U.S.?

A. The number of Saudi students in the U.S. began to surge in 2005, when the oil-rich nation created a generous scholarship program for those seeking to study here. The program was part of a deal brokered between former President George W. Bush and then-King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as a way to rekindle relations between the two countries after 9/11. More than 44,000 Saudis studied in the U.S. during the 2017-2018 academic year, according to data from the Institute of International Education, generating $1.8 billion in economic activity. Only China, India and South Korea had more students studying in the U.S. About 1,000 of these Saudi students enrolled at Oregon colleges and universities, figures show. Per capita, Oregon is second only to Ohio for number of Saudi students. Christina Luther, the director of Portland State University’s Office of International Student and Scholar Services, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that Saudi students first started coming to Portland State in the 1970s. Among them: Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, a prominent member of the royal Saudi family.

Q. Did attorney Ginger Mooney, who represented four missing Saudis in Oregon, do anything wrong?

A. Mooney hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, nor has she ever faced a complaint with the Oregon State Bar regarding these cases. Records show she has handled at least nine criminal cases involving Saudi students across Oregon who were accused of crimes including sex abuse and harassment. Most ended with the charges dropped or reduced. “I absolutely had nothing to do with anyone leaving the country or anyone failing to appear to any court appearance in my entire professional career,” Mooney told The Oregonian/OregonLive last month.

Q. Does this happen with citizens of other countries?

A. At this time The Oregonian/OregonLive hasn’t focused on the question of whether foreign nationals from other countries have a pattern of prosecution in the U.S. Anecdotally, prosecutors, police and federal law enforcement officials involved in these Saudi cases have said they aren’t familiar with defendants from other countries who have been bailed out of jail by their governments, provided legal counsel and subsequently disappear.

Feds launch investigation into disappearance of Saudi students facing U.S. charges

University students from Saudi Arabia in at least eight different states have fled the U.S. after being charged with serious crimes, including manslaughter and rape, an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive has found.

Q. What is the U.S. doing about this?

A. In response to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s reporting, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have sought answers about these disappearances from the U.S. State Department, Justice Department, FBI and Customs and Border Protection. The Oregon lawmakers also have introduced legislation in Congress that would punish Saudi Arabia for its suspected role in helping citizens avoid prosecution in the U.S. The bills would create a system in the federal government that tracks and reports on all foreign nationals who have fled the country while facing criminal charges, which doesn’t appear to exist at this time. Meanwhile, federal law enforcement officials within the Trump administration have launched a multi-agency investigation into how these Saudi students fled the U.S. Those agencies include the State Department, Justice Department and Customs and Border Protection, an aide to Wyden told The Oregonian/OregonLive. It appears that this is the first time a presidential administration has probed these disappearances.

Q. What else does The Oregonian/OregonLive plan to look into for this project?

A. The Oregonian/OregonLive will continue investigating criminal cases across the U.S. where Saudi nationals have escaped prosecution. Those findings will be published in real time. (Got a tip? Send it). The news organization will also track the federal investigation, legislative and political developments and also seek to better understand who in the U.S. government has known about these disappearances and for how long.

The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Noelle Crombie contributed to this report.

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© 2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.