witter Ex-employee on trial for spying for Saudi Arabia

A jury in California must judge the fate of a former employee of Twitter, accused by the American justice of having extracted from his own platform personal data with the profile of Saudi Arabia, who sought to know the identity of critics of the regime.

According to the prosecution, Ahmad Abouammo, a “corrupt employee”, sold detailed information on specific anonymous accounts to Riyadh for tens of thousands of dollars.

The defense, before the jury retired to deliberate on Thursday, countered that he was just doing his job, simply accepting a few gifts.

“The evidence showed that, for money and when he thought he was doing it out of sight, the defendant sold his place to a relative” of the Saudi royal family, said federal prosecutor Colin Sampson. in his last words to the jury.

Ahmad Abouammo was arrested in Seattle in November 2021, believed to be working illegally for a foreign government.

Together with another Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, they are accused of having been approached by Riyadh at the end of 2014-beginning of 2015 in order to transmit user data accessible only internally (email address, telephone number, date of birth, etc. .) that could allow Saudi Arabia to identify hitherto anonymous critics on the social network.

If Mr. Abouammo left Twitter in 2015 to move to Seattle, Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi, left the United States.

For Angela Chuang, Ahmad Abouammo’s lawyer, her client is on trial instead of Mr. Alzabarah. “And it’s their fault, (US justice) let Mr. Alzabarah flee the country while he was under FBI surveillance!” “, she launched.

The lawyer, if she recognizes that a Saudi operation could have been set up seven years ago with the aim of obtaining information on opponents from Twitter employees, assures that the prosecution has not not proved that his client was one of them.

“It’s obvious that the defendants the government was looking for are not there,” said Ms. Chuang.

She mocked the procedure which ends as a “human resources investigation disguised as a federal trial”.

His client is indeed accused by Twitter of not having respected the rules of the company by not declaring to his superiors having received 100,000 dollars and a watch worth more than 40,000 dollars from a close associate of the Saudi monarchy.

It was “pocket money” for Saudis accustomed to opulence, Ms. Chuang told jurors.

Was he a cunning spy who traveled the world to meet with his handlers and established a shell company to hide his money? Or was he a dutiful Twitter employee who handled requests from V.I.P. users and became a scapegoat when the government allowed the true spies to slip through its fingertips?

Those are the central questions in the trial that began on Thursday for Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter employee accused of spying on users on behalf of Saudi Arabia. In 2019, Mr. Abouammo was arrested and charged with committing wire fraud and acting as an agent of a foreign government without disclosing that work.

In opening statements in federal court in San Francisco, the Justice Department described Mr. Abouammo as an agent of Saudi Arabia who had used his internal access to dig up the personal information of dissidents on Twitter. He wanted money and proximity to power, prosecutors said. But lawyers for Mr. Abouammo argued that he had called up users’ information as part of his normal duties and had not provided it to Saudi officials.

“Power. Greed. Lies. This will be the story told by the evidence,” said Colin Sampson, an assistant U.S. attorney.

Mr. Abouammo maintained a close relationship with Bader Binasaker, who was a top adviser of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the government said. Prosecutors displayed a photo of Mr. Abouammo and Mr. Binasaker standing in front of a wooden sculpture of the Twitter logo during a tour of the company’s San Francisco headquarters. The men also met in London, where Mr. Binasaker gave Mr. Abouammo a luxury watch.

“He wanted to recruit a mole,” Mr. Sampson said of Mr. Binasaker. After receiving the watch, Mr. Abouammo began looking up information about a pseudonymous Twitter account that was critical of the Saudi government, Mr. Sampson said.

When he quit his job at Twitter in 2015, Mr. Abouammo connected Mr. Binasaker with another employee, Ali Alzabarah, who would continue sharing dissidents’ information, prosecutors said. He also contacted other Twitter employees to pass along requests from Saudi officials.

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