Ex-Twitter Worker in Saudi Spying Case Released on Bond

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A former Twitter employee accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on its critics will go home to his family in Seattle after a two-week saga in which four federal judges ordered him to be released from jail.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The U.S. government claims Ahmad Abouammo, 41, used his inside access as a Twitter employee to help Saudi Arabia obtain the private information of dissidents who criticized the oil-rich nation’s government and royal family on Twitter.

U.S. District Judge Edward Chen on Thursday rejected prosecutors’ claim that no set of conditions could reduce the “substantial likelihood” that Abouammo, a dual U.S.-Lebanese citizen who allegedly has access to money in Lebanon, will attempt to flee the U.S. like his co-defendant, 35-year-old Ali Alzabarah of Saudi Arabia, did in 2015.

Abouammo’s public defender, Jodi Linker, argued that her client – a U.S. citizen, husband and father of three who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years – has traveled multiple times, including to Lebanon and Boston over the last year and a half, and always returned home. He did so despite knowing that he faced potential criminal charges after FBI agents raided his Seattle home in October 2018, she argued.

Chen found the fact that Abouammo has three young children, a wife, sister, niece and uncle that live in Washington state and that he did not try to leave the country while facing potential charges weigh in favor of releasing him on bond with certain conditions.

“He has substantial ties here and as counsel has pointed out, there have been previous opportunities to flee,” Chen said. “He’s not taken any steps to flee.”

Chen required that Abouammo, his wife and children surrender their passports. He also required that his wife, uncle and sister sign on as sureties for a $50,000 bond to secure his release.

“If you were to flee or not comply, the bond is revoked,” Chen said. “That would put your wife and whoever else signs on to the surety in jeopardy.”

Abouammo will also be subject to GPS monitoring and travel restrictions.

Chen was the fourth judge to order Abouammo be released pending a trial on federal charges for failing to register as an agent of a foreign government and obstruction of justice.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Paula McCandlis in Seattle ordered him released on Nov. 8 but stayed her ruling pending appeal. Eleven days later, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco rejected the appeal but stayed his decision for seven days so prosecutors could seek another appeal.

An indictment, different from the prior criminal complaint, was filed against Abouammo on Tuesday, triggering the opening of a new criminal case, which was assigned to a new magistrate judge and district judge in San Francisco.

On Wednesday morning, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim refused to overrule Alsup’s decision to release Abouammo on bond. Prosecutors appealed a third time to Chen.

Abouammo’s wife Zeina and the couple’s three children, ages 2, 7 and 9, have attended each of Abouammo’s court hearings in San Francisco this week.

On Tuesday, his wife cried after Alsup decided to stay the release order. Abouammo’s young son cried, “Where’s daddy?”

After Chen ordered Abouammo be released Thursday, one of his children shouted, “Daddy’s coming home” in a hallway outside the courtroom.

Abouammo’s family members and former co-workers submitted seven letters of support to the court earlier this month, calling him a “great father” and someone who “always followed the rules” and did work to support free speech and human rights.

One factor Chen considered in releasing Abouammo was the severity of allegations against Abouammo compared to his co-defendant, Alzabarah, a Saudi Arabian citizen accused of accessing the private data of more than 6,000 Twitter users, including information that can be used to identify and locate dissidents, such as IP addresses and dates of birth.

In contrast, Abouammo is accused of accessing two Twitter users’ private information, including the email address and phone number of a prominent Saudi critic with more than 1 million followers.

“The allegations, while serious and could result in substantial penalty, are different and less severe than Mr. Alzabarah who is a Saudi citizen,” Chen said.

A third defendant involved in the case is Ahmed Almutairi, a 30-year-old Saudi Arabian citizen who is accused of persuading the two former Twitter workers to obtain and share private user data in violation of Twitter’s policies. Almutairi reportedly acted as “go-between,” facilitating meetings and communications between the Saudi government and the ex-Twitter employees.

Each defendant faces a maximum 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for failing to register as agents of a foreign government. Abouammo faces an additional 20 years in prison and $250,000 fine for obstruction of justice.

Prosecutors claim Abouammo created a false invoice for a consulting gig to mask a payment he received from Saudi Arabia. According to prosecutors, Abouammo was paid $300,000 and given a luxury watch in exchange for his cooperation with the Saudi government.

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