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Ex-Twitter Employee Convicted of Spying Gets 3 1/2 Years in Prison

The former Twitter employee, Ahmad Abouammo, helped Saudi regime identify anonymous critics.

(Bloomberg) -- A former Twitter Inc. employee convicted of spying for Saudi Arabia was ordered to serve 3 1/2 years in prison.

Ahmad Abouammo’s sentence handed down Wednesday by a federal judge in San Francisco is about half way in between the 7 1/4-year term prosecutors sought and what his lawyers asked for — home confinement or supervised release on probation.

Abouammo, a US resident born in Egypt, was found guilty in August of charges that he acted as an agent for Saudi Arabia by turning over personal information of platform users critical of the Kingdom. He was also convicted of money laundering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and falsifying records.

His conviction garnered national attention later that month when a former Twitter security chief-turned-whistleblower told Congress that Abouammo’s spying reflected lax data security practices at the social media platform that posed a threat to national security.

Abouammo, who worked as a media partnership manager for Twitter in 2015, maintained he was simply doing his job promoting the nascent social media network in the Middle East and North Africa. Prosecutors alleged his relationship with a top aide to Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, now the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, went much further — and darker — to help the Crown Prince silence his critics.

The jury was shown evidence that Abouammo received a Hublot watch and $300,000 in wire transfers — which the US said were bribes from the MBS aide, Bader Al- Asaker, in exchange for confidential Twitter account information on Saudi dissidents.

Prosecutors were prohibited by a court ruling from telling jurors explicitly that the US and human rights organizations believe Saudi Arabia under bin Salman has secretly detained and tortured its critics.

But they hinted at the brutal practices through an expert witness who testified about the changing politics and culture of Saudi Arabia, and through a woman who told jurors that her brother went silent in 2018 after he posted satirical criticism of the country on Twitter.

Federal public defenders who represented Abouammo argued for a sentence of probation because he had no criminal record and most of the behavior that got him convicted happened more than seven years ago. At that time, Abouammo was dealing with “serious upheavals” in his sister’s life, including specialized care for her newborn daughter and her sheltering at his home in an escape from an abusive husband.

The US said Abouammo’s crimes weren’t garden-variety business fraud; he was bribed by bin Salman’s right-hand man to “access, monitor, and convey the private user information of Saudi dissidents who criticized a powerful and repressive foreign government.”

Facing a serious sentence, Abouammo offers “a scintilla of remorse wrapped in numerous layers of blame, excuses, and minimization,” prosecutors said in a court filing. Prosecutors also sought three years of supervised release and a fine of $30,000.

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