SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Three judges have ordered a man accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on its critics be released from jail, but the man’s fate now lies in the hands of a fourth federal judge: U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in San Francisco.
Chen was assigned the criminal case against former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo on Tuesday after a formal indictment was filed against the 41-year-old Seattle resident and father of three.
The government claims Abouammo and his co-defendant, 35-year-old Ali Alzabarah of Saudi Arabia, used their inside access as Twitter employees to help Saudi Arabia obtain the private information of users who criticized the oil-rich nation’s government and royal family.
Over the last 13 days, three federal judges have ordered Abouammo to be released from jail based on his lack of a criminal record and close ties to Washington state, where his wife, three children, sister, niece and uncle live.
However, Abouammo remains in jail because the case against him has proceeded in a peculiar way.
Abouammo was first charged by a criminal complaint, rather than an indictment, and arrested on Nov. 6. Though the case against him was filed in San Francisco, he appeared before a magistrate judge in Seattle on Nov. 8. The magistrate judge ordered him to be released with GPS monitoring but stayed her decision pending appeal.
The appeal went to U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco because he was the on-duty judge for criminal cases at the time. An appeal hearing was held in San Francisco on Nov. 12, but Alsup refused to rule at that time because Abouammo was still being held in Seattle. Alsup demanded the government transfer Abouammo to San Francisco within a week, threatening to potentially release the defendant if the government failed to do so.
On Tuesday, the government filed a formal indictment against Abouammo. The indictment triggered the opening of a new criminal case assigned to a new magistrate judge and new district court judge in San Francisco.
Despite those new developments, an already scheduled appeal hearing took place in Alsup’s courtroom Tuesday after Abouammo was brought to San Francisco. Alsup ordered Abouammo to be released but stayed his decision for seven days, giving prosecutors time to seek another appeal.
On Wednesday morning, Abouammo appeared before another judge – U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim. He pleaded not guilty to charges of failing to register as an agent of a foreign government and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors asked Kim to overrule Alsup’s decision, but Kim refused to do so.
Within hours, federal prosecutors filed a new appeal, asking Chen, the district judge now overseeing the criminal case, to overrule three judges’ prior decisions.
At a status conference in Chen’s courtroom Wednesday afternoon, Chen asked why he should revisit an issue already decided by another district judge, Alsup.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson argued that Alsup issued no formal findings and merely wrote a terse docket entry calling for Abouammo to be released.
Abouammo’s federal public defender, Jodi Linker, strongly disagreed with that depiction, noting that Alsup stated during a hearing Tuesday that Abouammo had never been convicted of a crime.
Chen agreed to take another look at Alsup’s decision but said he would need more time to review evidence in the case. He scheduled a hearing for 8:30 a.m. Thursday.
The government claims Abouammo poses a flight risk because he has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Lebanon, a father in Lebanon, potential access to assets in Lebanon, and because the Saudi government helped his co-defendant flee the country to Saudi Arabia.
The defense argues that Abouammo has traveled multiple times, including to Lebanon and Boston over the last year and a half, and always returned home, despite knowing that he faced potential criminal charges after FBI agents raided his Seattle home in October 2018.
The defense also argues the weight of evidence against Abouammo is weak. According to a criminal complaint unsealed Nov. 6, Abouammo accessed two Twitter users’ private information, including the email address and phone number of a prominent Saudi critic with more than 1 million followers. In contrast, his co-defendant Alzabarah allegedly accessed 6,000 Twitter users’ private data from May to November 2015.
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.
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.