Sen. Jeff Merkley gets closer to investigating Saudi students escaping U.S. justice, vows to continue effort

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s ongoing effort to investigate — and potentially punish — Saudi Arabia for its suspected role in spiriting accused criminals out of the United States quietly won bipartisan support in the past two months, but then faltered this week in a burst of political maneuvering.

The Oregon Democrat’s proposals had won little traction until they were included in a wide-ranging bill focused on taking a tough stance on Saudi Arabia and sponsored by the Republican chair of Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The sudden shift marked Merkley’s most promising opening on the issue since The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation found multiple cases where Saudi students studying in the U.S. vanished while facing criminal charges, likely with the help of their government.

But disagreement on how far to go with the Saudis left the bill for dead Thursday.

Merkley, in a statement Friday, said he would continue to push for his proposals in any future legislation focused on Saudi Arabia.

“I will work to get these provisions in every single Saudi bill that comes forward, until we provide the accountability that every victim of a crime deserves,” he said.

Since December, The Oregonian/OregonLive has revealed criminal cases involving at least seven Saudi nationals who disappeared from Oregon before they faced trial or completed their jail sentence on charges ranging from rape to manslaughter, including those who surrendered their passports to authorities.

The news organization has also found similar cases in at least seven other states — Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin — and Canada, bringing the total number of known Saudi suspects who have escaped U.S. prosecution to 25.

In April, a story co-published by The Oregonian/OregonLive and ProPublica showed how the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have been aware of Saudi officials helping their country’s citizens flee since at least 2008 yet never intervened.

The U.S. 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.

In response to the findings, Merkley proposed legislation to require the federal government to investigate such disappearances and to impose sanctions against any Saudi diplomat or official found to have assisted Saudi fugitives escape prosecution.

For months, his proposals languished in committee.

That changed, however, when staff to Merkley and Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho met at the end of May while the Republican committee chairman was crafting a comprehensive bill on Saudi Arabia, aides to both lawmakers said.

Merkley’s provisions, with some tweaking, became a section of the bill introduced by Risch on July 9. According to aides, the chairman was confident that not only would his bill clear the Senate, but also that President Donald Trump would sign it.

Some committee members from both parties, however, believed that the Risch bill didn’t do enough to punish Saudi Arabia or constrain the Trump administration’s relationship with the kingdom.

For example, it didn’t halt weapons sales to the Saudis despite their prolonged and bloody war in Yemen or impose sanctions on those behind the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who U.S. intelligence officials say was murdered and dismembered inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey last year.

A competing bill introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democratic member of the committee, did both. His proposal, which doesn’t contain Merkley’s provisions on Saudi fugitives in the U.S., cleared the committee 13-9 on Thursday with the support of several Republicans.

After it passed, committee members voted 12-10 to tack the Menendez bill onto Risch’s legislation as an amendment. The chairman then withdrew his bill, saying Trump would veto it and saw no point.

It’s not known whether the stand-alone Menendez bill will get a floor vote by the Senate.

“We need a wholesale rethinking of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Merkley said. “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.”