The Strange Disappearances of Saudi Students Accused of Crimes in the US

The Saudi government is facing allegations that it helped its citizens escape trial for serious crimes.
February 22, 2019, 10:41pm
saudi student crimes
Left: Mugshot of Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah via Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. Right: Photo of Saudi embassy by Safvan Allahverdi/Anadolu Agency/Getty

In June of 2017, Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, a Saudi Arabian student at Portland Community College, was set to stand trial for allegedly killing a 15-year-old girl named Fallon Smart during a hit-and-run incident. But he never appeared: Roughly two weeks before trial, he was taken away in a black SUV, leaving only the tracking device formerly affixed to his ankle behind, according to a December 23 article from Oregonian reporter Shane Dixon Kavanaugh. Law enforcement believes Noorah’s escape was surreptitiously aided and abetted by the Saudi government, who cops say likely provided the fugitive with a fraudulent passport and safe passage out of the United States on a private plane.

And this case is part of a pattern of Saudi college students accused of horrific crimes in Oregon and elsewhere suddenly disappearing before trial.

Subsequent reporting from the Oregonian found four more cases in the state, dating back to 2012, of young Saudi men having their legal fees and bail paid for by the Saudi government, then vanishing, often despite having previously forfeited their passports. The crimes they were accused of include two accusations of rape, an alleged hit-and-run DUI, and child pornography charges.

After the grisly murder and torture of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside of the Saudi embassy in Turkey—an act largely believed to have been directly ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—scrutiny of Saudi Arabiahas increased dramatically, and politicians on both sides of the aisle began to make their extreme displeasure known, with the House voting to end US support of the war in Yemen earlier this month.

On January 29, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, made a direct plea to FBI Director Christopher Wray during a hearing. He then sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the matter. Both were ignored, Wyden told VICE.

“Not only is it very frustrating, but you’ve got to wonder what their priorities are,” Wyden said over the phone. “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’?”

There is currently no record kept by the US government of foreign nationals who have fled prosecution. But further reporting by Kavanaugh found that Saudi college students have also disappeared after being charged with violent or sexual crimes in recent years in Montana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Utah, and Washington State, and also the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.

Wyden and his fellow Oregon senator Jeff Merkley have proposed legislation in the form of the ESCAPE of Saudi Nationals Act and the Preserving American Justice Act, which would require the federal government to investigate and keep track of such disappearances and punish the Saudi government for its suspected role.

Some of these crimes predate Donald Trump’s presidency, but Wyden held the current administration accountable for not investigating these disappearances. “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," he said. "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.”

“It appears this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Fallon Smart’s family in a statement provided by their attorney, Christopher Larsen. “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.”

For its part, the Saudi government has completely denied any wrongdoing. “The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and all of its officials strictly adhere to all US laws while inside the United States,” the Saudi embassy wrote in a statement, which went on to say that the Saudi government provides legal assistance to all its citizens who are incarcerated. “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,” the embassy said.

On February 13, more than six weeks after Wyden began petitioning the administration for action, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told Wyden in a meeting in the senator’s office that a multi-agency probe into the cases in Oregon and beyond had begun. Wyden told VICE that McAleenan said the administration is taking the cases seriously, and that Wyden requested direct action be taken quickly and that he’d be “bird-dogging this case every step of the way.”

As for the Saudi denial, Wyden doesn’t believe a word. When asked what can be done to a country that has no extradition treaty with the US, Wyden said he wants to use his position as the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee to try and impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia and create serious tax penalties until the kingdom cooperates with the investigation. Wyden said he would also like Pompeo to bring in the Saudi Arabian ambassador, demand answers and assistance in bringing the wanted men back to the US, and to declare anyone involved a persona non grata.

“The president, of course, is always talking about business opportunities with the Saudis and their making investments that create jobs and the like,” Wyden said. “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.”

Follow Donovan Farley on Twitter.

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