A former Twitter employee has been convicted of spying on Saudi Arabia by using the personal information of platform users who used anonymous handles to criticize the kingdom and its royal family.
Ahmad Abouammo, an Egyptian-born US resident, was found guilty by a jury on Tuesday of charges including acting as an agent for Saudi Arabia, money laundering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and falsifying records, following a two-week trial in federal court i. San Francisco. He faces between 10 and 20 years in prison when sentenced.
Abouammo, a media partnership manager for Twitter in 2015, said he was simply doing his job promoting the new social media network in the Middle East and North Africa. Prosecutors allege that his relationship with a top aide to Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, who is now the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, went much further – and darker – to help the crown prince silence his critics.
The jury was shown evidence that Abouammo received a Hublot watch and $300,000 in wire transfers – which the US said were bribes from MBS aide Bader Asaker – in exchange for secret Twitter account information on Saudi dissidents.
The trial came against the backdrop of President Biden’s mid-July spat with the crown prince in an effort to build relations with Saudi Arabia, which Biden once called a “pariah” nation after his agents Washington Post journalist Jamal The murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi i. 2018.
Prosecutors were prevented by a court ruling from expressly telling jurors that the United States and human rights organizations believe that Saudi Arabia under MBS has been secretly detained and tortured its critics.
But they highlighted the brutal practices through an expert witness who testified about Saudi Arabia’s changing politics and culture, and through a woman who told jurors that her brother was silenced in 2018 after he posted satirical criticism of the country on Twitter.
Angela Chuang, a federal public defender who represented Abouammo, told jurors that the case was the result of a botched investigation and Twitter’s careless handling of its users’ data. The United States allowed the real target of its investigation, Abouammo’s alleged co-conspirator, Ali Alzabarah, who worked at Twitter as an engineer, to flee to Saudi Arabia despite being under surveillance, Chuang said.
“The government and Twitter need a way to save face,” Chuang told the jury. The US let its main suspect get away and Twitter threw Abouammo “under the bus,” she said. “Is this the best they could come up with?” she asked.
Abouammo and his lawyers declined to comment on the verdict.