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Saudi Students' Flights From U.S. Justice

The Oregonian reports on a series of cases in which Saudi students at U.S. colleges were accused of crimes but disappeared before facing U.S. criminal charges. Two senators introduce legislation calling for investigation of Saudi government's role.

February 14, 2019
 
KOIN 6 report on case of Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah

One student was charged with manslaughter in relation to a hit-and-run that killed a 15-year-old girl. Others were accused of rape or sexual assault. Another was charged after his laptop was found to contain child pornography.

The Oregonian, a daily newspaper based in Portland, Ore., has been reporting a series of articles on Saudi Arabian students enrolled at American colleges who were accused of crimes but disappeared before appearing in court or serving their sentence, becoming fugitives from U.S. justice. The latest article in the series can be found here.

In at least four of the cases, according to the Oregonian's reporting, the Saudi government paid the accused students’ bail and legal fees. In the case of Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, a Portland Community College student charged in relation to a hit-and-run that killed 15-year-old Fallon Smart in August 2016, U.S. law enforcement officials also believe the Saudis provided him with a fake passport to escape the country, likely via private plane, two weeks before his trial.

The Oregonian reported that despite unknowns in the investigation, "officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service are all but certain who helped orchestrate the remarkable escape: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." Noorah is reportedly now back in Saudi Arabia, a country with which the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty.

In response to the articles, Oregon’s two U.S. senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, introduced two bills that would investigate the Saudi government's involvement, punish countries accused of helping their citizens escape U.S. justice and require the Department of Justice to formally track such cases.

“When anyone within our nation commits a crime, they need to be held accountable -- especially when that crime results in the death of an innocent teenager,” Merkley said in a statement. “Saudi Arabia’s blatant disrespect for international norms cannot be allowed to stand. We need a wholesale rethinking of our relationship with Saudi Arabia -- and we should all be able to agree that any nation that helps their citizens escape from the law needs to be held fully accountable. After the shocking murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, this is yet another sign of Saudi Arabia’s flaunting of diplomatic norms.”

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s request for comment. A statement provided to The Washington Post in December said it was Saudi policy to post bail for citizens jailed in the U.S. when they request help. According to the Post, the embassy declined to answer its questions about whether government officials aided in the escape of Noorah, the student charged in the fatal hit-and-run, other than to say that “no travel document was issued by the Embassy or Consulate for Mr. Noorah.”

There are more than 40,000 Saudi Arabian students studying in the U.S., many of whom are studying with the support of generous scholarships from their government. The cases reported on by The Oregonian represent only a very tiny fraction of the many thousands of Saudi students who have come to the U.S. to study. And of course some American students commit serious crimes as well.

The Oregonian has so far identified 15 cases of Saudi students fleeing from U.S. justice, in eight different states, plus two similar cases in Canada. The oldest of the cases dates to 1988, and the most recent -- in Nova Scotia, Canada -- to December 2018. For some of the more recent cases, the universities students reportedly were enrolled in include Eastern Washington, Gannon, Montana State, Oregon State and Western Oregon Universities and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

“These do appear to be isolated incidents,” said Christina Luther, the director of international student and scholar services at Portland State University, where one of the students featured in the Oregonian coverage briefly attended. According to The Oregonian, the student, Suliman Ali Algwaiz, entered no-contest pleas in August 2016 to third-degree assault and driving under the influence of intoxicants after allegedly striking and critically injuring a homeless man. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, to be served on weekends, but disappeared before completing his sentence.

"I completely understand the concern that a foreign government may be assisting its citizens from facing justice in the United States," Luther said. "But I’m really concerned about the intense focus on the student population, because there are so many thousands of students who are here just doing what they’re supposed to be doing."

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