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Saudis Facing Criminal Charges in the U.S. Keep Disappearing. Is the Kingdom Helping Them Escape?

StoryFebruary 20, 2019
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Image Credit: The Oregonian

A growing number of Saudi students are vanishing while facing serious criminal charges in the U.S. Federal law enforcement officials are now launching an investigation into the suspicious disappearances to probe if the Saudi government was involved and how. We speak with Shane Dixon Kavanaugh, The Oregonian reporter who broke the story about the spate of Saudi student disappearances. He found that in at least four cases the Saudi government paid a defendant’s bail and legal fees before he disappeared. In one case, police believe Saudi officials snuck a Saudi national out of the country on a private plane using a fake passport so he could avoid being tried for killing a 15-year-old Portland teenager in a hit-and-run.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, The Oregonian newspaper is reporting federal law enforcement officials have launched an investigation after a number of Saudi students living in the United States vanished while they were facing serious criminal charges, including manslaughter and rape. The paper found that in at least four cases the Saudi government paid the defendant’s bail and legal fees before they disappeared. In one case, police believe Saudi officials spirited a Saudi national out of the country on a private plane using a fake passport so he could avoid being tried for killing a 15-year-old Portland teenager in a hit-and-run.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has called on the Trump administration to share information about the Saudi government’s suspected role in the disappearances. Last week, Wyden met with Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who reportedly informed the senator that his agency and others are now investigating how the Saudi students fled the United States while awaiting trial. This is Senator Wyden speaking to The Oregonian Monday.

SEN. RON WYDEN: I’m not going to let the Saudis operate as if they’re some kind of medieval regime that can flout modern diplomatic norms. … My sense is there is a lot more here than people realize. And I intend to use my seat on the Intelligence Committee and as the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee to make it clear that the days of a country just getting a slap on the wrist when they violate diplomatic norms, those days are over. I propose legislation that would tax the sovereign wealth funds at a significant rate. And I’ve also made it clear that, under my legislation, the core Saudi family, if they continue to engage in this kind of conduct, will not be able to use the United States as a playground, if they think they’re above the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Portland, Oregon, where we’re joined by Shane Dixon Kavanaugh, The Oregonian reporter who broke the story of Saudi students fleeing the U.S., possibly with the assistance of the Saudi government.

Shane, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain how you got tipped off to this story and then how it grew.

SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Amy and Juan, for having me on the show, and happy belated birthday to Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.

SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH: We got a tip from federal law enforcement back in October 2018, specifically with the case involving Abdulrahman Noorah, the Saudi national who was accused of fatally hitting 15-year-old Fallon Smart here in Portland, Oregon. At the time, we learned that Noorah, who had disappeared in June of 2017, two weeks before his manslaughter trial here—federal law enforcement believes that the Saudi government helped Mr. Noorah escape prosecution and return to Saudi Arabia in kind of an extraordinary manner. Law enforcement believe that the Saudi government likely furnished Mr. Noorah with an illicit passport and possibly got him out of the country here on a private plane.

Once we started looking into that particular case, we soon found that there were at least four other cases here in Oregon where young Saudi students, who were studying at public universities or colleges here, were accused of serious crimes, from rape to possession of child photography. All of them were—or, all but one were bailed out by the Saudi government, and all of them have since disappeared.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Shane, most people are not aware that there’s a considerable number of Saudi university students here in the United States, with most of them actually paid—their expenses and their tuition, paid by the Saudi government. Can you talk about that, the numbers involved, if you have an idea?

SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH: Yeah, absolutely. So, following 9/11, where relations between the Saudi government and the U.S. government were immensely strained, back in about 2005 or 2006, George W. Bush and King Abdullah reached an agreement that would create sort of a massive scholarship program, funded by the Saudi government, to allow tens of thousands of Saudi students come over to the United States to study here in the U.S. Last year, in 2018, there were 40,000 university students from Saudi Arabia here at American universities and colleges. That was down from a high even a years before of about 70,000. So, you know, one thing that we’ve tried to make clear in our reporting is, even though we’re looking at criminal cases here in Oregon and other parts of the country where Saudi students have been accused of crimes and have vanished while facing prosecution, it’s just a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of Saudi students studying in the U.S. each year.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Noorah, the Saudi student Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, who was accused of hitting, killing—the hit-and-run, killing Fallon Smart while speeding in Portland, Oregon. Before his trial, Noorah reportedly obtained a fake passport, boarded a plane, left the country. I want to turn to Smart’s parents responding to the news. This is her mother, Fawn Lengvenis, and father, Seth Smart, speaking to The Oregonian.

FAWN LENGVENIS: When a child dies, all—it’s like all laws of physics go out the door. And you spend months trying to put those things that you trusted as constants back together. So, to do all of that work in healing and then have her killer escape, it just sets it all back to the beginning.

SETH SMART: Definitely reopened the wound, and it’s insult to injury. I mean, now it allows the imagination to run wild again, of like: Is he just living his normal life? Is he—does he even think about it? Does he care? And, you know, our families are forever changed.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Fallon Smart’s parents. She died in this hit-and-run. The Saudi student responsible for killing her fled the country. Shane, talk about how you linked up with people around the country, finding their stories, and what exactly is happening. I mean, Trump has made a hallmark of his presidency talking about immigrants in this country who kill people. We all know that that rate is extremely low compared to the general population. But he has not mentioned any of these people, who have actually fled the country, perhaps with the support of his very close ally, Saudi Arabia.

SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH: Right. So, after we found these five cases here in Oregon, that appear to be part of a pattern, we wanted to start looking to see if we could find other cases like them around the country. We just started looking into this over the last few weeks, and we’ve already found cases like the ones we’ve reported on here in Oregon in seven other states, as well as Canada—again, all of them involving young Saudi students accused of serious crimes, who then have managed to escape prosecution in the U.S. Some of them have managed to leave the country, even though their passports had been surrendered to authorities. A number of them, like the ones in Oregon, have been bailed out by the Saudi government. And we’re just trying to figure out what exactly is going on with these particular cases and just how many more we might expect to find around the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Saudi Embassy, in response to your story, the embassy in Washington, D.C., released a statement saying, quote, “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. Contrary to some media reports, Saudi diplomatic missions in the United States do not issue travel documents to citizens engaged in legal proceedings.” Your reaction, Shane, to their statement?

SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH: Well, again, as of right now, we don’t know, or I would like to figure out, how somebody who does not have a passport, because they’ve turned it over either to the courts or the Department of Homeland Security, manages to leave the United States and return to their home country. That’s certainly the question that—one of the many questions that needs to be answered in our ongoing investigation. And that’s certainly one we’d like to ask the Saudi Embassy. We’ve reached out to the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles, that was involved in a number of these cases here in Oregon, as well as the Saudi Embassy, with very detailed questions about these particular cases. And that statement, in fact, was given to CNN, and not to our news organization, last week.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And is there any indication that anyone within the immigration services of the United States was aware of these people leaving the country, or somehow green-lighted them, or are they just as baffled as you are?

SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH: Well, that’s one of the questions that Senator Ron Wyden here in Oregon has been asking for weeks. He has been reaching out to a number of agencies within the Trump administration, trying to seek answers with regards to these students who are disappearing. So far, he’s gotten not many responses, although he did get to meet with the Customs and Border Protection commissioner last week. So, it’s not exactly clear who knows what within the U.S. government.

The other thing I want to point out and sort of emphasize, as well, in terms of the cases we’re looking at around the country and in Oregon, even though the case of Abdulrahman Noorah, he disappeared during the Trump administration, we have cases, criminal cases like these, going back as far as 1988. And so far, we’ve found 17 here in the U.S. and Canada. I can also say that we expect to find more, and are looking at more and will likely have our list updated by the end of this week. So, it’s an issue that goes back across many presidential administrations. And it’s really hard to believe or to think that somebody within the U.S. government has not known about these for some time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Shane Dixon, what is the most important question that you’re looking to have answered right now? And what can Senators Merkley do, as well as Wyden? We have 10 seconds.

SHANE DIXON KAVANAUGH: OK. Yeah, I think, you know, the most important question that we have right now is: What role, if any, has the U.S. government played in helping to facilitate the departure of, maybe not all, but some of these—some of these students?

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the most—what this brings to mind is, after 9/11, it was President George W. Bush at the time, and private planes picking up the bin Laden family in various places in the United States and spiriting them back to Saudi Arabia. That does it for today’s program. We will link to Shane Dixon Kavanaugh’s excellent reporting at The Oregonian. He broke the story on the Saudi students fleeing the U.S. justice system, possibly with the assistance of the Saudi government.

Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a full-time, 1-year paid news production fellowship. Go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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