SAN FRANCISCO: Jurors in a San Francisco court on Thursday (Aug 4) began mulling the fate of a former Twitter employee accused of taking bribes from Saudi Arabia to help unmask its critics on the platform.
Prosecutors said Ahmad Abouammo sold Twitter user information for cash and an expensive watch about seven years ago, while his defence team contended that he did nothing more than accept gifts from free-spending Saudis for simply doing his client management job.
“The evidence shows that, for a price and thinking no one was watching, the defendant sold his position to an insider of the crown prince,” US prosecutor Colin Sampson said in final remarks to the jury.
Defense attorney Angela Chuang countered that while there certainly appeared to be a conspiracy about seven years ago to get revealing information about Saudi critics from Twitter, prosecutors failed to prove Abouammo was part of it.
“It’s abundantly clear that the people the government really wants are not here because they messed up,” Chuang told jurors.
Chuang conceded that Abouammo did violate Twitter employee rules by not telling the San Francisco-based company that he had received US$100,000 in cash and a watch valued at more than US$40,000 from someone close to the Saudi crown prince.
However, she downplayed the significance of the gift, saying it amounted to “pocket change” in Saudi culture known for generosity and lavish presents.
TRUST TRADED FOR CASH?
Abouammo was arrested in Seattle in November 2019 on a slew of charges including being an illegal agent of a foreign government.
Prosecutors accused Abouammo and fellow Twitter employee Ali Alzabarah of being enlisted by Saudi officials between late 2014 and early the following year to get private information on accounts firing off posts critical of the regime.
The then-Twitter workers could use their credentials to glean email addresses, phone numbers, birth dates and other private data to identify people behind anonymous accounts, prosecutors said.
“The evidence you heard is that the defendant, who had a great deal of trust given to him by Twitter, sold his access to officials of Saudi Arabia,” Sampson said.
Abouammo quit Twitter in 2015 and took a job at e-commerce titan Amazon in Seattle, where he lives, according to court documents.
Alzabarah, a Saudi national, is being sought on a charge of failing to register in the United States as an agent of a foreign government as required by United States law, according to an FBI statement.
Chuang told jurors that prosecutors were trying to punish Abouammo for Alzabarah’s actions.
“As much as the government wishes that was Mr. Alzabarah sitting at the table right now, it is not,” Chuang told jurors.
“And that is on them, they let Mr Alzabarah flee the country while he was under FBI surveillance.”