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Accused Saudi spy says Khashoggi killing irrelevant to his trial

Friends of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold posters bearing his picture as they attend an event marking the second-year anniversary of his assassination in front of Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2020. (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)  (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Peter Blumberg Bloomberg News

A former Twitter Inc. employee accused of helping Saudi Arabia crack down on dissidents says there should be no mention at his U.S. trial of the government’s involvement in the slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Ahmad Abouammo, who is charged with acting as an illegal foreign agent in the U.S., is asking a federal judge to declare certain evidence off limits when he goes to trial in July in San Francisco. Prosecutors claim that while working as a Middle East media liaison for Twitter in 2014, Abouammo was recruited and paid by the Saudi royal family to look up confidential account details on users of the platform who had posted criticism of the regime.

Lawyers for Abouammo argued in a court filing late Friday that the narrow charges against him provide no justification for prosecutors to link him more broadly to actions allegedly taken by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against government critics.

“KSA is not on trial for its human rights abuses, and Mr. Abouammo is not charged with assisting KSA’s human rights crimes, but with violating Twitter policies and failing to register with the Attorney General during a specific time period,” the attorneys wrote. “Any evidence of such abuses, however, would suggest that Mr. Abouammo is responsible for KSA’s crimes.”

A U.S. intelligence report released last year concluded that the Saudi crown prince likely approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi, who was dismembered by Saudi agents in Turkey in 2018. It also stated that Prince Mohammed bin Salman supported “using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.” Prince Mohammed has denied involvement in the Khashoggi killing, while saying he accepts symbolic responsibility as the country’s de facto ruler.

Human rights groups have alleged that Twitter data about thousands of account holders mined by Abouammo and another former employee of the company were used by Saudi Arabia to harass or arrest people critical of the government. The other ex-employee left the U.S. quickly after Twitter fired him in 2015. He and a third man charged along with Abouammo remain at large.

Abouammo’s lawyers said it appears that prosecutors want to introduce at trial a New York Times article about the Twitter breach and 2018 text messages between Abouammo and a former colleague at the company in which he said he knew Khashoggi and was sad about his death. The lawyers said the article is “hearsay” and should not be presented to the jury as “truth” about the alleged conspiracy involving Abouammo.

The defense lawyers also objected to the prosecution’s plan to call as a witness the sister of a Saudi man who ran an anonymous Twitter account and who has said her brother’s disappearance in 2018 resulted from the activities of the alleged Twitter spies.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was a regular commentator on human rights and social justice issues in Saudi Arabia. He voiced his opinions on an anonymous Twitter account that had garnered thousands of followers, his sister, Areej al-Sadhan, told Bloomberg News in 2020.

The U.S. public defenders representing Abouammo argued in Friday’s filing that the Twitter users who will be referenced at the trial should not be identified as “victims” or “dissidents” because that might prejudice jurors against him.

Prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Edward Chen in a separate filing to order that personal identifying information about the Twitter users remain confidential at the trial, in part to protect them from potential persecution by the royal family. They said defense lawyers refused to agree to that condition.

The case is USA v. Abouammo, 19-cr-00621 US District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).