Oregon’s Merkley and Wyden seek to punish Saudi Arabia over students who vanished before trial

Oregon’s U.S. senators on Friday introduced a pair of bills targeting foreign consulates that help their citizens escape criminal prosecution in the U.S., a response to revelations that the Saudi Arabian government provided assistance to students who ran afoul of the law and fled before trial.

Citing an Oregonian/OregonLive investigation, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden proposed to enact legislation that would require the federal government to investigate such disappearances, prevent them from happening again and punish the Saudi government for its suspected role.

“Saudi Arabia’s blatant disrespect for international norms cannot be allowed to stand,” Merkley said in a statement. “We should all be able to agree that any nation that helps their citizens escape from the law needs to be held fully accountable.”

The Oregonian/OregonLive has revealed criminal cases involving at least five Saudi nationals who disappeared before they faced trial or completed their jail sentence in Oregon.

In four of the cases, the Saudi government stepped in to help, posting large sums of money for bail and possibly underwriting legal fees, according to court records and interviews with prosecutors.

Before their disappearances, three had turned over their passports to court or law enforcement officials to prevent their travel.

In announcing the legislation, Merkley and Wyden singled out suspects in two of the five cases, Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah and Ali Hussain Alhamoud.

Noorah was charged in the fatal Southeast Portland hit-and-run death of 15-year-old Fallon Smart in August 2016. He vanished two weeks before his June 2017 manslaughter trial.

Federal law enforcement officials told The Oregonian/OregonLive last month they believe the Saudis helped orchestrate Noorah’s remarkable escape and that the young man arrived back in Saudi Arabia 19 months ago.

Federal court records in Oregon show the Saudi government also bailed out Alhamoud from the Lincoln County Jail in 2012 after he was indicted on multiple sex-crime charges, including first-degree rape.

Alhamoud, who records show was living in Corvallis, managed to board a plane in Portland the same day he was released and returned to Saudi Arabia, according to a criminal complaint filed by the FBI.

Merkley and Wyden’s first bill, the ESCAPE of Saudi Nationals Act, would:

· Urge President Donald Trump to declare any Saudi diplomat involved in the escape of Noorah or Alhamoud as a persona non-grata, which would trigger their expulsion from the U.S.

· Ask the State Department to not accredit any diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles until both men are returned to the U.S.

· Require the State Department and U.S. Attorney General to investigate any involvement the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles had in the disappearance of the fugitives — and deliver a report within 90 days.

· Require the State Department to shut down any consulate or embassy in the U.S. found to have helped a foreign citizen escape prosecution in the U.S.

The second bill, the Preserving American Justice Act, would:

· Charge the Department of Justice with creating an annual report on foreign nationals who flee the U.S. while facing criminal prosecution.

· Require the Director of National Intelligence to create a list of countries that help foreign nationals accused of crimes escape.

· Create a tax penalty for any country that lands on that list.

· Prohibit visas and travel to the U.S. to some Saudi nationals, should the Department of Justice determine the Saudi government assisted in the escape of suspected criminals in the U.S.

Wyden last month asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker for explanations about the disappearance of Noorah. Neither has responded.

“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,” Wyden said in a statement.

“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.”

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

“However, no travel document was issued by the Embassy or Consulate for Mr. Noorah,” the spokesman said in a statement Friday. “Furthermore, the Saudi government advises all its citizens to strictly observe the laws and regulations of every country they visit or reside in.”