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Feds: Ex-Twitter employee and accused Saudi spy participated in ‘overarching conspiracy’

Jurors will have to decide whether the government proved that Ahmad Abouammo conveyed private data to Saudi officials.

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?”

“Yes.”

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.

“Correct.”

“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.

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“The issue is did he convey that information. “Otherwise it suggests that mere monitoring for his own purpose would suffice and I think that would change the nature of some of the charges here.”

Chen added that there can be no legitimate transaction affirmative defense if the government can prove all elements to the charge, because either Abouammo conveyed the information or he didn’t.

Abouammo stands accused of acting as a foreign agent without notifying the U.S. government, wire fraud, honest services wire fraud against Twitter, conspiracy related to the fraud, money laundering, and fabricating evidence to cover up his alleged crimes.

His legal team clashed with prosecutors Wednesday morning over how Chen should instruct the jury on the conspiracy charge related to the wire fraud.

Prosecutors say Abouammo was part of an overarching conspiracy in which Bader Al-Asaker, a top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, bribed Abouammo and his former co-worker Ali Alzabarah for private user information.

Alzabarah remains at large, having fled the U.S. in 2015 after being confronted by Twitter management. He managed to make it Los Angeles and board a flight to Saudi Arabia with his wife and child despite being under FBI surveillance.

Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi social media strategist who claimed to have ties to bin Salman, is also said to have received confidential Twitter data from Alzabarah.

"There's no evidence Mr. Abouammo was part of this conspiracy. He had limited and innocuous contacts with Alzabarah and Almutairi and was no part of Mr. Alzabarah attempting to flee,” Chuang told Chen.

Chen said that based on the evidence, the jury could find that there was another conspiracy that did not include Abouammo.

“The evidence shows there's rather minimal communication between Abouammo and Alzabarah. You don't have what we see typically in a lot of conspiracy cases where there’s key communication between all the co-conspirators,” Chen said. “In this case it is left by inference and inferences can be drawn in a number of different directions.”

For instance, Chen said, the jury could find Abouammo communicated with Al-Asaker “not with the purpose in mind of facilitating the conveyance of inside information. It could be just that 'I regret that I started this thing and that set off all of this stuff.’ The jury could find that.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin Sampson argued that Abouammo knew all three of his suspected co-conspirators, and that he incriminated himself by blurting out to the FBI that he introduced Alzabarah to Al-Asaker.

“It involves the same central figures. I don't think it's necessary to show a group chat among all the co-conspirators,” he said.

In the end, Chen instructed the jury, “You must decide whether the conspiracy charged in the indictment existed and, if it did, who at least some of its members were. If you find that the conspiracy charged did not exist, then you must return a not guilty verdict, even though you may find that some other conspiracy existed. Similarly, if you find that any defendant was not a member of the charged conspiracy, then you must find that defendant not guilty, even though that defendant may have been a member of some other conspiracy.”

Abouammo met Al-Asaker, who is also referred to as Bader Binasaker, when he toured Twitter’s headquarters in June 2014. The pair later met in London on Dec. 5, 2014, where prosecutors say they discussed @Mujtahidd, the handle of an anonymous activist and rumored royal insider who tweets gossip and criticism of the Saudi royal family.

Records shown to the jury over the course of the trial show that Abouammo looked up details like the phone number and email address behind the @Mujtahidd account at least 20 times in late 2014 and early 2015.

Prosecutors claim that in exchange, Abouammo received a Hublot watch worth around $40,000 and $300,000, wired in $100,000 installments, to a bank account in Lebanon owned by Abouammo’s father.

FBI Special Agent Letitia Wu testified Monday she found no written correspondence among thousands of pages of texts and emails unearthed during the investigation that show Abouammo had actually transferred the information to Al-Asaker. But she believes they communicated through the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp.

The government has also produced a trove of bank records, wire transfers, Twitter direct messages and call logs to establish Abouammo’s ties to Al-Asaker.

Closing arguments are expected Thursday morning.

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