Oregon’s Jeff Merkley wins bipartisan support for Saudi fugitive probe: ‘The Senate wants answers’

A push by Sen. Jeff Merkley to investigate the Saudi Arabian government’s suspected role in spiriting accused criminals out of the United States may finally see a Senate vote by the end of this year.

After two prior efforts fizzled, the Oregon Democrat’s newest proposal found its way into a state and foreign operations funding bill that won unanimous approval last week in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Merkley is a member.

The measure comes after an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive’s found multiple cases where Saudi students studying around the U.S. vanished while facing serious criminal charges, likely with the help of their government.

[Read The Oregon/OregonLive’s investigative series “Fleeing justice” here]

“It’s completely unacceptable and outrageous that any nation would assist their citizens in escaping the U.S. to evade justice after they’ve committed serious crimes,” Merkley said in a statement Monday.

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 had 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.

Despite documented cases around the country, Merkley and fellow U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, have been the only lawmakers in Washington to publicly raise concerns over the Saudi disappearances and demand action from the Trump administration.

The pair have pressed federal agencies — including the U.S. Marshals Service, Customs and Border Protection, the FBI and the departments of Justice, State and Homeland Security — for answers. The agencies thus far have not been forthcoming with information, nor do they appear interested in probing the issue further, the Oregon lawmakers have said.

Merkley tried twice this year to introduce measures from his seat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would require the federal government to investigate the disappearances and to impose sanctions against any Saudi diplomat or official found to have assisted Saudi fugitives escape prosecution. Both failed to advance from the committee. His latest proposal, included in the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act for the fiscal year 2020, is more modest in scope.

It would require the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Attorney General and Director of National Intelligence, to report to Congress within 90 days the steps the State Department and Saudi Arabia have taken to probe the disappearances.

The measure would also ask the Trump administration to consider expelling from the U.S. any diplomat or consular official found to have assisted Saudi fugitives in their escape, as well as stripping U.S. real estate holdings from the consulate.

The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced the state and foreign operations bill, which contained dozens of other provisions, 31-0 on Thursday. A full Senate vote has not been scheduled.

“The strong bipartisan support for this provision sends a powerful message to the State Department: The Senate wants answers and action,” Merkley said.

“We want to know what the State Department knows about these flagrant violations by Saudi Arabia, and we want to hear what they plan to do in response.”