Judge May Free Ex-Twitter Worker in Saudi Spying Case

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Claiming federal prosecutors are “torpedoing” the court process, a federal judge said Tuesday he will release a former Twitter employee accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on dissidents unless the government brings him to San Francisco by next week.

The Twitter app icon is shown on April 26, 2017, on a mobile phone. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

“I’m ordering the government to get him here in a week,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in court.

Alsup is overseeing the government’s appeal of a Seattle-based magistrate judge’s decision to release Ahmad Abouammo on bond with GPS monitoring, a decision that was put on hold after the government filed its appeal Friday.

Abouammo, 41, of Seattle, and Ali Alzabarah, 35, of Saudi Arabia, are former Twitter employees accused of using their inside access in 2014 and 2015 to obtain private information about Twitter users who criticized the Saudi government and sharing that information with the kingdom. The defendants allegedly obtained data such as email addresses, IP addresses and dates of birth, which could be used to identify and locate dissidents.

On Tuesday, Justice Department lawyer Colin Sampson said it could take weeks for Abouammo to be transferred from Seattle to San Francisco. Alsup refused to accept that delay.

“I can’t see why it would take more than a few days,” Alsup said. “He has a right to be present during a proceeding like this.”

Making a special appearance on behalf of Abouammo, defense lawyer Jodi Linker told Alsup the evidence against her client is thin.

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 is accused of accessing 6,000 Twitter users’ private data from May to November 2015.

“The weight of the evidence against Mr. Abouammo is not strong,” Linker said.

Sampson replied that the information Abouammo provided clearly had value for the Saudi government, which paid him $300,000 and a luxury watch according to federal prosecutors.

Linker said her client never attempted to flee the country, even after federal agents raided his Seattle home in October 2018. She added Abouammo has extensive ties to the Seattle area. He has three young children, ages 2, 7 and 9, along with a wife, sister and uncle who live in Washington state, she said.

Because Abouammo’s co-defendant, Alzabarah, fled to Saudi Arabia, prosecutors say the oil-rich kingdom could again use its resources and influence to extract Abouammo upon his release from jail.

“The Saudi government has every reason to signal to the world that it will help get its people out if there is trouble,” Sampson said.

The government also claims Abouammo has ties to foreign countries, where he may also have assets. They say his status as a dual citizen of the U.S. and Lebanon with a father living in Lebanon and his close ties to Saudi Arabia are factors that weigh in favor of keeping him in jail.

Alsup noted other factors might justify releasing Abouammo, such as his lack of a criminal record.

“The guy’s never been convicted of anything in his life,” Alsup said. “He does have considerable roots here. On the other hand, he has relatives in Lebanon.”

Alsup scheduled a new hearing for Nov. 19 in San Francisco and advised the government to make sure Abouammo is in the city by then.

“If he’s not here in a week, I have a feeling I’m going to say the magistrate judge’s ruling in Seattle will stand,” Alsup said.

A third defendant, Ahmed Almutairi, a 30-year-old Saudi Arabian citizen, is accused of acting as a “go-between” by persuading the ex-Twitter employees to do Saudi Arabia’s bidding and facilitating communications between them and the kingdom.

Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia and warrants have been issued for their arrest, according to the Justice Department.

Last month, Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident who was granted political asylum in Canada, sued Twitter in San Francisco federal court, claiming the company allowed his private information to be stolen and compromised.

Twitter said in a statement last week that it understands the incredible risks faced by those who use Twitter to voice dissent, adding it only allows a limited group of trained and vetted employees to access sensitive account information.

“We’re committed to protecting those who use our service to advocate for equality, individual freedoms, and human rights,” Twitter said.

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