SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — As the criminal trial of an accused Saudi spy heads towards its conclusion, a former colleague testified that while close relationships with notable figures were an important part of his job at Twitter, he would not have given up confidential data on accounts.
On Wednesday, public defender Angela Chuang continued to question Alexey Shelestenko, who managed Twitter’s Russia media partnerships at the same time that Ahmad Abouammo was working with Middle East partners.
Shelestenko said helping high-profile figures in Russian government, news, and entertainment obtain blue checkmark verification for their accounts was a “major part” of his job, and that he would regularly use internal tools like profile viewer to confirm that the accounts met Twitter’s verification requirements.
Though the government claims Abouammo looked into dissident accounts for different, nefarious reasons, Shelestenko said media partnerships managers would regularly use the tool to confirm an account’s email address. “We were told to just use it for whatever we needed to get our job done,” he said.
"Did you have to ask permission every time you used agent tools or profile viewer?” Chuang asked, to which Shelestenko answered, “No I did not.”
His relationship with Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was also raised during his testimony Wednesday.
Shelestenko testified that his family faced some pressure from the Russian government over a tweet he posted in 2015 that criticized Russian leaders following a court decision against Navalny, with whom he’d developed a friendship.
Radio Free Europe reported at the time that Shelestenko had said Russian leaders, including Putin, are "brazen thieves” and "sooner or later will be punished."
The tweet prompted Russia’s internet regulator Roskomnadzor to contact Twitter to ask if Shelestenko’s tweet was their official position.
Chuang asked if Twitter knew that The Foreign Intelligence Service, formerly known as KGB, had visited his grandmother’s home unannounced, and if Twitter still sent Shelestenko back to Russia.
Shelestenko said yes, but added that the company gave him a secure phone and a protocol to communicate if he was in trouble.
“They still sent you back to the same country where this happened?” Chuang asked.
Shelestenko answered, “Yes.”
"Because they wanted you to continue to work with Russian partners?”
But prosecutors emphasized that Shelestenko would never have betrayed an account’s personal details.
“You would never have never accessed nonpublic or personal information about Mr. Navalny if a Russian government official complained to you or asked you to look into it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Cheng asked.
“And you would certainly never access nonpublic or personal information about Mr. Navalny if a Russian government official paid you.”
“Correct,” he said, agreeing that it would be wrong to do so.
As federal prosecutors and Abouammo’s attorneys prepare to present their final arguments to the jury, the federal judge overseeing the trial said whether the defendant is guilty of acting as an unregistered foreign agent hinges on the government proving he actually transferred confidential data on Twitter users to Saudi officials.
U.S. District Judge Edward Chen said he would modify jury instructions to say that the government must prove Abouammo “[a]cted as an agent of a foreign government or official, specifically of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal Family, using his position at Twitter to access, monitor, and convey nonpublic information held in the accounts of Twitter users to the government or an official of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal Family.”
Chen said at a hearing Wednesday morning outside the presence of the jury that the word “convey” is the core of the charge.