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Senators renew push to punish Saudi Arabia over suspected role in whisking fugitives out of US

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (Oregonian/OregonLive file photos/TNS)

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are renewing a push to have the Trump administration investigate — and potentially punish — the government of Saudi Arabia for its suspected role in whisking its citizens out of the United States to escape criminal prosecution.

The Oregon Democrats have proposed amendments to the annual National Defense Authorization Act that would require federal agents to probe the series of disappearances and to impose sanctions against any Saudi diplomat or official found to have assisted the fugitives.

Prior efforts by Wyden and Merkley to advance the measures have come up short in the Senate, which continued debating the defense bill Monday. Members hope to finalize and pass the legislation before the July Fourth recess.

“Congress and this administration cannot surrender and say nothing can be done about Saudi nationals who have been accused of violent crimes and then fled the United States with the aid of the Saudi regime,” Wyden told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a statement.

“Senator Merkley and I offered these amendments to the must-pass defense policy bill to try once again to get a measure of justice for the victims of these crimes, and to send a message to the Saudi government that it won’t get away with helping fugitives escape American justice.”

Their continued attempts are in response to an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive that found 25 cases where Saudi students studying throughout the U.S. vanished while facing manslaughter, sex crimes and other felony charges. The cases occurred under several U.S. administrations.

Seven of the cases were in Oregon, including some Saudis who had surrendered their passports to authorities.

One of the suspects, 21-year-old Portland Community College student Abulrahman Sameer Noorah, disappeared weeks before his 2017 trial in the hit-and-run death of 15-year-old Fallon Smart and later resurfaced in Saudi Arabia.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service told The Oregonian/OregonLive that they believed Noorah left his Southeast Portland neighborhood in a black SUV and later used an illicit passport and private plane — both likely provided by the Saudi government — to flee.

The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation later found similar cases in seven other states — Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin — and Canada.

Some of the cases date back 30 years, suggesting the Saudi government may have spent decades subverting the U.S. criminal justice system and leaving untold numbers of victims without any recourse.

The United States and Saudi Arabia don’t share an extradition treaty. That makes the return of any Saudi suspect who has left the U.S. unlikely, if not impossible, without diplomatic or political pressure.

A story co-published by The Oregonian/OregonLive and ProPublica in April 2019 showed how the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have been aware of the Saudi intervention since at least 2008 yet never tried to stop it.

Intelligence officials also believe the Saudi flights from justice before their trials or completing their sentences will continue without action by American authorities, according to declassified FBI documents released earlier this year by Wyden’s office.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., has said that, as a policy, the Saudi government will cover the cost of bail for any citizen jailed in the U.S. who asks for assistance.

The kingdom has also denied playing any role in helping Saudi citizens escape.

The amendments introduced by Wyden and Merkley would:

\u00b7 Require the State Department to investigate how the Saudi government issues passports and other travel documents to its citizens in the U.S. — and deliver a report to Congress within 90 days.

\u00b7 Require the U.S. attorney general to investigate any involvement the Saudi government had in the disappearance of Saudi fugitives — and deliver a report to Congress within 90 days.

\u00b7 Prohibit U.S. visas and travel to some Saudi nationals, including members of the royal family, should the Department of Justice determine the Saudi government assisted in the escape of suspected criminals in the U.S.

\u00b7 Expel from the U.S. any Saudi diplomat found to have assisted a suspected criminal leave the country.

\u00b7 Allow the president to shut down Saudi-owned diplomatic facilities Los Angeles and Fairfax, Virginia.

\u00b7 Allow the president to suspend permits for Saudi air carriers.

“It’s completely unacceptable that the Saudi government has orchestrated secret missions to help its citizens evade justice by removing them from the United States,” Merkley said in a statement.

“We need to use all the tools available to us to make clear that Saudi Arabia’s blatant disrespect for international norms cannot be allowed to stand.”


© 2020 The Oregonian