How Saudi Students, Accused Of Crimes, Evade U.S. Justice System
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A recent report shines a light on the number of Saudi students who come to the U.S. to study, commit crimes and then leave the country before facing charges. The report from ProPublica and The Oregonian also shows that the U.S. government has turned a blind eye to all this. The news organizations have been investigating how Saudi foreign students evade the U.S. justice system with the likely involvement of the Saudi government. We spoke with ProPublica's Tim Golden to find out more.
TIM GOLDEN: Well, The Oregonian started out - a very enterprising reporter there, Shane Kavanaugh - with a story of a 15-year-old Portland girl named Fallon Smart who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2016. The driver of that car turned out to be a Saudi student at a local community college in Portland, and he was eventually charged with vehicular manslaughter. But right before he was supposed to go on trial, a big, black SUV pulled up to the home where he was living and whisked him away.
MARTIN: Do we know where it whisked him away to?
GOLDEN: Well, they found the ankle monitoring bracelet that he was wearing - at the court's insistence - on the side of the road. And he reappeared more than a year later back in Saudi Arabia.
MARTIN: Wow. And are there other examples?
GOLDEN: There have been more than 20 examples that The Oregonian has found of crimes ranging from rape to assault to child sexual abuse. Well, what we learned in the reporting that we are just publishing is that the United States government - the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the State Department - have been aware of this pattern of Saudi government involvement in these cases for at least a decade.
MARTIN: And we're seemingly OK with it? Or we're turning a blind eye to it?
GOLDEN: It's a complicated picture, as you would imagine. But the Saudi government has had this system in place, it would seem, for a long time in which they have gotten prominent visitors to the United States out of trouble. And Saudi diplomats, Saudi intelligence officers have come in mostly to protect the kingdom from embarrassment and from negative imagery in the United States.
MARTIN: In your reporting, did you discover any individual U.S. official or federal agency that has tried to push back on the Saudis and their interference in the U.S. justice system?
GOLDEN: The Department of Homeland Security did an analysis of this, we learned, in 2008. But that was not widely shared within the United States government. A number of FBI officials in the United States and also in Riyadh have become aware of this and have avoided raising it - primarily because their overarching concern has been continuing Saudi cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
The State Department just told us that they have raised this issue now with the Saudi government, but going back over the last 10 or 15 years, our understanding is that they never took action against any of the Saudi diplomats or intelligence officers who are believed to have been involved in these cases.
MARTIN: We should also note that the number of young Saudis coming to the U.S. has exploded, right?
GOLDEN: That's right. Under a scholarship program that the late King Abdullah set up with the Bush administration in 2005, the number of students has gone from fewer than 5,000 to more than 80,000 10 years later. And obviously, most of those students are well-behaved, law-abiding kids. But there have also been these problematic cases. And United States officials seem to have looked the other way consistently when they have become aware of this.
MARTIN: Tim Golden is the editor at large at ProPublica, which partnered with The Oregonian and OregonLive to investigate this story. Tim, thanks so much. We appreciate it.
GOLDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.