Judge Orders US to Free Ex-Twitter Worker Snagged in Saudi Spy Case

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Tuesday ordered a man accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on its critics be released from jail – but stayed his decision for seven days to give prosecutors time to appeal.

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

Ahmad Abouammo, a 41-year-old Seattle resident and former Twitter employee, is accused of helping Saudi Arabia obtain the private information of users who criticized the oil-rich nation’s government on Twitter.

Two days after Abouammo was arrested on Nov. 6, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paula McCandlis in Seattle ordered him to be released from jail with GPS monitoring. Federal prosecutors immediately appealed the decision.

At a hearing in San Francisco Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup said he agreed with the magistrate judge’s decision, especially since Abouammo has no criminal record and close ties to Washington state, where his wife, children, sister, niece and uncle live.

“He’s never been in jail in his life,” Alsup said. “Here he is suffering in a county jail.”

Abouammo’s wife and three young children, ages 2, 7 and 9, attended the hearing in San Francisco Tuesday. After the hearing, Abouammo’s wife, Zeina, had tears in her eyes as she consoled her children.

“Where is daddy,” her young son asked after his father was whisked away by a U.S. marshal.

With dark bushy hair and several days’ worth of facial hair stubble, Abouammo appeared before Alsup in a blue Alameda County Jail jumpsuit.

Prosecutors had argued Abouammo poses a flight risk because his co-defendant, 35-year-old Ali Alzabarah, fled to Saudi Arabia hours after he was confronted by Twitter about improperly accessing user data.

Abouammo’s attorney, federal public defender Jodi Linker, argued in a court filing Monday that her client has had ample opportunity to flee since FBI agents raided his home in October 2018. He has traveled multiple times, including to Lebanon and Boston over the last year and a half, and always returned home, she argued.

“Mr. Abouammo has shown that he has every desire to remain here and face the charges, which he has known for at least 13 months, if not longer, were likely to be filed,” Linker wrote in opposing the government’s appeal.

Prosecutors also claim Abouammo has access to more than $100,000 in bank accounts in Lebanon. Abouammo has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Lebanon, where his father resides. Prosecutors say Saudi Arabia deposited $200,000 in a Lebanese bank account, which Abouammo had opened under a relative’s name before transferring nearly $60,000 to one of his U.S. accounts.

Abouammo ‘s attorney says the government has no evidence that those funds still exist or that Abouammo  has access to them.

According to his attorney, Abouammo is currently out of work, suffering with mental health issues and collecting food stamps. He filed for bankruptcy in August.

“All he has shown time and time again is that he is an individual who plays by the rules and faces the consequences of his actions,” Linker wrote.

Abouammo’s attorney further argued that the weight of evidence against her client is thin, especially compared to the alleged actions of his co-defendant.

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.

“Mr. Abouammo is not alleged to have accessed any IP information, which would have provided valuable location information,” Linker wrote. “Instead, Mr. Abouammo is alleged to have accessed the email address and phone number of one user and just the email address of another.”

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. Abouammo was paid $300,000 and given a luxury watch in exchange for his cooperation with the Saudi government, according to a criminal complaint

In a statement released earlier this month, Twitter said it understands the incredible risks faced by those who use its social network 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.

Federal prosecutors indicated they will appeal Alsup’s decision, possibly with U.S. District Judge Edward Chen, who was just assigned the criminal case on Tuesday after a formal indictment was filed.

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