In-Depth: Sen. Ron Wyden (R-OR) introduced this bill in response to reports that Saudi consular officials in the U.S. helped Abdulrahmeen Sameer Noorah, a Saudi national, escape the U.S. shortly before his trial for manslaughter, felony hit-and-run, and reckless driving after fatally striking an Oregon teen with his car:
“More than a month after The Oregonian first put a spotlight on how Saudi Arabia’s government apparently helped accused criminals flee the United States, the Trump Administration has failed to explain what, if anything, it is doing to ensure these men face American justice. That’s totally unacceptable. Our bills will force the Justice Department to get to the bottom of what happened, and create tough consequences for any government that helps flout the U.S. justice system.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), an original cosponsor of this bill, adds:
“When anyone within our nation commits a crime, they need to be held accountable—especially when that crime results in the death of an innocent teenager. Saudi Arabia’s blatant disrespect for international norms cannot be allowed to stand. We need a wholesale rethinking of our relationship with Saudi Arabia—and we should all be able to agree that any nation that helps their citizens escape from the law needs to be held fully accountable. After the shocking murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, this is yet another sign of Saudi Arabia’s flaunting of diplomatic norms.”
In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker in December 2018, Rep. Wyden detailed law enforcement’s belief that Saudi Arabia helped Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, a Saudi student accused of a fatal hit-and-run in 2017, escape the U.S. and asked what the Trump administration is doing to try to get him back so he can be held accountable for his alleged crime. Rep. Wyden also called for a thorough investigation of Noorah’s disappearance:
“These [allegations that Saudi Arabia assisted Noorah’s escape] are shocking claims in any event, but with the barbaric murder of U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, they suggest a brazen pattern of disregard for the law and abuse of diplomatic privileges. If they are accurate, they would require significant restrictions on Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic privileges and call into question the future of America’s bilateral relationship with the Saudis…. Since the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia, what steps is the Trump administration taking to ensure Mr. Noorah is accountable for the death of Ms. Smart?”
After following up on his December 2018 letter with a February 5, 2019 letter to Secretary Pompeo and making a direct plea to FBI Director Christopher Wray during a Senate intelligence hearing on January 29, 2019, all to no avail. Sen. Wyden cast doubt on the Trump administration’s motives in a February interview with VICE:
“Not only is it very frustrating, but you’ve got to wonder what [the Trump administration’s] priorities are. For months and months we’ve heard those people talk about ‘America First’—well, to look at this it seems like they’re putting Saudi Arabia first. It’s been six weeks since law enforcement said the Saudis played an important role in whisking these suspects out of the country. When it comes to standing up for these families against these brutal crimes—rape, manslaughter—is the Trump administration going to in effect say, ‘Not interested’? Let’s let them describe what the argument is for the callous and indifferent treatment of these families whose lives are never going to be the same. Senators are in the business of talking. That’s what we do. But I’ve spoken with those parents and there are really no words you can say. Their lives are never going to be the same and they want justice done. The president, of course, is always talking about business opportunities with the Saudis and their making investments that create jobs and the like. But what it looks like to me is you have a medieval regime trying to repeatedly flout modern diplomatic norms. Is the Trump administration going to be complicit? Secretary Pompeo should call the Saudi ambassador into his office tomorrow. Certainly both at home and in Washington DC there’s a growing awareness of just how shocking this is, what an injustice this is. And until I believe the Trump administration is finally getting the message, this is not going away.”
The Saudi government completely denies any wrongdoing. In a statement saying that it provides legal assistance to all its citizens who are incarcerated, it says:
“The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and all of its officials strictly adhere to all US laws while inside the United States… Saudi diplomatic missions in the United States do not issue travel documents to citizens engaged in legal proceedings. 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.”
On February 13, 2019, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told Sen. Wyden in a meeting at the senator’s office that a multi-agency probe into the cases of Saudi students disappearing in both Oregon and other states had begun. Sen. Wyden says that McAleenan said the administration is taking the cases seriously, and he requested direct action be taken quickly, as the senator would be “bird-dogging this case every step of the way.”
This bill has one cosponsor, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).
Of Note: In January 2019, an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive revealed at least five cases of Saudi nations vanishing before facing trial or completing their jail sentences in Oregon. The cases included rape, two hit-and-runs, and possession of child pornography. The investigation found a number of commonalities in all five cases:
- All involved young men studying at a public college or university in Oregon with assistance from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the time of their arrest;
- In four of the cases, the Saudi government stepped in to help, posting large sums of money for bail and possibly underwriting legal fees;
- Three surrendered their passports;
- All disappeared while facing charges or jail time;
- The same Oregon defense attorney, Ginger Mooney, was hired to represent the four most recent suspects; and
- Little is known of the whereabouts of the five, though some have been traced back to Saudi Arabia.
Federal law enforcement officials in the Dept. of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service told The Oregonian/OregonLive that they believe the Saudis helped orchestrate the escape of one of the students, Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, and that Noorah arrived back in Saudi Arabia 19 months ago. Noorah was accused of killing 15-year-old Fallon Smart in a fatal hit-and-run in 2017. Two weeks before his June 2017 trial, Noorah was picked from his Southeast Portland home up by a private car, which drove him to a sand-and-gravel yard two miles away. There, he sliced off a tracking monitor that he’d worn for months, discarding it at the scene. After that, law enforcement officials believe Noorah got an illicit passport and boarded a plane (likely a private carrier) to flee the U.S.
Chris Larsen, a lawyer for Smart’s mother, Fawn Lengvenis, says of the situation, “It begs the question: Why isn’t the Saudi government respecting our justice system? It’s reprehensible.”
In a statement through Larsen, Fallon Smart’s family ads:
“It appears this is just the tip of the iceberg. This isn’t just a disregard for our laws and justice system. It seems to be Saudi policy and practice to assist their citizens in fleeing from justice, all serious crimes for which they should be held accountable. Each new report is devastating and disgraceful.”
In a follow-up to his original article, the reporter who wrote the original Oregonian/OregonLive article reported additional cases of Saudi international studies vanishing while facing criminal charges in at least seven other states — Montana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Utah, and Washington State— and the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
The number of Saudi students in the U.S. has risen dramatically since 2005, when the country created a generous scholarship program for those seeking to study abroad. The program covers full tuition, provides a monthly living stipend, and offers other perks to those who attend American colleges or universities. According to the Institute of International Education, over 44,000 Saudis — including around 1,000 at Oregon colleges and universities — studied in the U.S. in the 2017-2018 academic year.
Since the U.S. and Saudi Arabia don’t have an extradition treaty, an arrest of Saudi nationals who’ve fled the U.S. in Saudi Arabia is unlikely.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / RyanJLane)