Twitter spy trial exposes betrayal of Saudi Arabia dissidents
Twitter Inc cultivated Saudi Arabian leaders to boost the use of its platform in the Middle East. At the same time, it prided itself on providing a forum where the country’s dissidents and activists could anonymously post their criticism of the royal family and organise.
But as it tried to achieve contradictory goals, the dissidents were allegedly betrayed by a former Twitter staffer.
That’s the story unfolding at a criminal trial in San Francisco federal court, just blocks from Twitter’s headquarters.
Current and former employees of the social media company are testifying against Ahmad Abouammo, their former colleague who was a rising star at Twitter.
He is charged with spying for the Kingdom and outing the dissidents, exposing them to imprisonment and torture.
Assistant US Attorney Colin Sampson elicited testimony from the witnesses in an attempt to substantiate the government’s charge that Abouammo, a US citizen fluent in Arabic, was recruited as “an operative, a mole” by Mr Bader Al-Asaker, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “right-hand man”.
Mr Sampson described for jurors a conspiracy that spanned the globe but started with a bribe to Abouammo of a Hublot watch.
In addition, the Twitter employee also collected US$300,000 (S$416,559) from the Saudis.
In exchange, Abouammo was given a “a shopping list of Twitter users that he wanted an insider to keep track of”, Mr Sampson said.
The former Twitter employees explained the company’s privacy and data access policies, which Abouammo would’ve violated if, as alleged, he turned over to Saudi Arabia users’ e-mail addresses, phone numbers, IP addresses, and dates of birth.
Abouammo faces numerous charges including acting as an illegal foreign agent in the US and obstruction of justice, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The trial is scheduled to take about two weeks.
For Twitter, the trial reanimates the company’s most damaging security lapse. Other breaches have gained more attention, including when personal information of celebrities was hacked.
But US and human rights organisations say the information stolen by Abouammo and his alleged co-conspirators in 2015 resulted in the gravest consequences: critics of Saudi Arabia being held in secret prisons, suffering electric shocks, sleep deprivation, beatings and other forms of torture.
Abouammo’s prosecution contrasts with President Joe Biden’s more recent attempt to warm relations with Saudi Arabia, a paradox epitomised by his controversial fist bump with the crown prince, known as MBS, whose photograph prosecutors featured for jurors atop a pyramid of figures they say are responsible for the breach at Twitter.