Prosecutors Appeal Ex-Twitter Employee’s Release in Saudi Spying Case

(CN) – Arguing that Saudi Arabia has helped many flee the U.S. to escape prosecution, the Justice Department immediately appealed a magistrate judge’s decision Friday to release a former Twitter employee accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on its critics.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Paula McCandlis ordered defendant Ahmad Abouammo released on bail with GPS monitoring, a mental health evaluation and travel restrictions at a hearing in Seattle Friday. However, the release was put on hold to give prosecutors time to file an appeal Friday afternoon.

In an appeal filed at 2:12 p.m. PST, U.S. prosecutors claimed Abouammo is a flight risk, given that his codefendant Ali Alzabarah fled to Saudi Arabia “within hours after he was confronted” about his alleged improper acquisition of Twitter users’ private data.

Abouammo, a 41-year-old Seattle resident, and Alzabarah, 35, of Saudi Arabia, are both former Twitter employees accused of using their inside access to obtain information on Twitter users deemed critical of the Saudi Arabian 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.

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

According to a criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday, the former employees received a luxury watch, hundreds of thousands of dollars and other benefits in exchange for their cooperation.

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

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

In a 6-page appeal Friday, the Justice Department argues that even though Abouammo did not flee the U.S. after federal agents searched his home in October 2018, that is “no indication of the likelihood that he will flee now that he has actually been charged with serious crimes.”

All three defendants face 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but Abouammo faces an additional 20 years in prison and another $250,000 fine for obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say he lied to investigators and created a false invoice for a consulting gig to mask the payment he received from Saudi Arabia for sharing Twitter users’ private data.

Prosecutors say Abouammo has ties to multiple foreign countries, where he may also have assets. They say his status as a dual U.S. and Lebanon citizen with a father living in Lebanon and his close ties to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are factors that weigh in favor of denying him release on bail.

The Justice Department further insists that Saudi Arabia may offer financial assistance to Abouammo and his family in exchange for him fleeing the U.S. and avoiding prosecution.

“Defendant, whose bankruptcy pleadings indicate that he is potentially financially vulnerable and has negative wealth here in the United States, has every incentive to flee to avoid prosecution,” U.S. Assistant Attorney Colin Sampson wrote in the appeal.

In letters of support filed in court Thursday, Abouammo’s wife Zeina calls him a “great father” to their three children who has “always been very supportive, understanding, optimistic, honest and caring.”

Abouammo’s sister, Amani, also praised her brother in a letter, saying Abouammo took care of her and her “fragile baby” after she escaped an abusive marriage and came to the U.S.  She said Abouammo helped her move into an apartment, handled all the expenses and took days off work to go with them to Michigan, Oregon and Belgium for her daughter’s eye surgeries.

His uncle, Adnan Abouammo, said his nephew has never been interested in material things and always prioritized taking care of his sister and family as the most important things in life.

A former colleague who worked with Abouammo at MBN, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, from 2011 to 2013 said Abouammo did work to support free speech and human rights. Another former coworker at MBN said Abouammo “always followed the rules.”

Prosecutors say Abouammo and his codefendant Alzabarah violated Twitter’s policies by accessing and sharing Twitter users’ private data with Saudi Arabia.

In a statement Wednesday, Twitter said only a limited group of trained and vetted employees have access to sensitive account information. The company said it understands the incredible risks faced by those who use Twitter to voice dissent and hold those in power accountable.

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

U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued an order Friday afternoon stating that Abouammo will remain in custody pending further order from the court. A hearing on the appeal is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 12, in Alsup’s courtroom in San Francisco.

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