Oregon senators press Biden admin to act on Saudi Arabia’s role in fugitives fleeing U.S.

Oregon senators press Biden admin to act on Saudi Arabia’s role in fugitives fleeing U.S.


By:  Shane Dixon Kavanaugh

U.S Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are asking the Biden administration to take action against the government of Saudi Arabia for its suspected role in whisking its citizens out of the United States to escape criminal prosecution, renewing their years-long effort that the president's predecessor rebuffed.

"We urge you to do what the Trump administration would not: impose consequences on the Saudis for their indefensible behavior," the Oregon Democrats wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a letter dated Wednesday.

"President Biden has stated his intent to take a harder line with Saudi Arabia and taking action against the Kingdom for their subversion of the rule of law would be a good way to demonstrate that."

Wyden and Merkley's continued push comes in response to a 2019 investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive that found more than two dozen cases in which Saudi students studying in the U.S. vanished while facing manslaughter, sex crimes and other felony charges.

While these flights from justice occurred under several U.S. administrations, the newsroom's revelation of the shocking pattern came as President Donald Trump began his third year in office.

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

One of the suspects, 21-year-old Portland Community College student Abdulrahman

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 was driven out of 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 news publication later revealed a pattern of similar cases around the U.S. that spanned states and a 30-year period, suggesting the Saudi government may have spent decades subverting the U.S. criminal justice system and leaving untold numbers of victims without recourse.

"We need a wholesale rethinking of our relationship with Saudi Arabia - and we should all be able to agree that any nation that helps its citizens escape from the law needs to be held fully accountable," Merkley told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

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 will continue without action by American authorities, according to declassified FBI documents released last year by Wyden’s office.

In December, "60 Minutes" featured a segment on the Saudi disappearances that focused on the Fallon Smart case.

Despite the mounting number of such cases and evidence that Saudi officials played a role in orchestrating some of them, the Trump White House showed little interest in intervening, according to the Oregon senators.

"We made these points to the Trump administration, repeatedly, and were shocked when agency after agency refused to do anything to hold the Saudi government accountable or prevent future abuses," the lawmakers said in their letter to Blinken.

Wyden and Merkley also wrote they planned to reintroduce bills 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 fugitives. Prior efforts to advance the measures came up short in the Senate, which switched from Republican to Democratic control in January.

"The new Biden administration presents a fresh and welcome opportunity - after its predecessor’s coddling of Saudi Arabia — for the United States to hold the Saudis accountable for helping their nationals flee justice in Oregon and our entire country," Wyden said in a statement.

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.