A jury in California has convicted a former worker at Twitter of spying for Saudi Arabia by providing the kingdom private information about Saudi dissidents. The spying effort led to the arrest, torture and jailing of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who ran an anonymous satirical Twitter account. His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, and the lawyer for the family, Jim Walden, are calling on the Biden administration to push for his release. “The brutality of the Saudi officials have no limits,” says Areej al-Sadhan. “Twitter and other social media companies have more than a little responsibility for what’s happening, not just with respect to Abdulrahman’s case and the case of other disappeared Saudi human rights activists and outspoken dissidents, but across a much broader array of misconduct,” says Walden.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
A jury in California has convicted a former Twitter employee of spying for Saudi Arabia by providing the kingdom private information about Saudi dissidents. Prosecutors accused the man, Ahmad Abouammo, of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a close aide of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in exchange for information about 6,000 Twitter accounts. One of the accounts belonged to the Saudi aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who ran an anonymous satirical account critical of the Saudi kingdom. Four years ago, he was abducted by the secret Saudi police, tortured and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The jury’s decision comes just weeks after President Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two men greeted each other with a fist bump.
We’re joined now by Abdulrahman al-Sadhan’s sister, Areej al-Sadhan, as well as Jim Walden, who’s an attorney for the al-Sadhan family.
Areej, let’s begin with you. Talk about what happened to your brother and how this relates to this jury finding this Twitter worker guilty of providing information about Twitter users to Saudi Arabia.
AREEJ AL-SADHAN: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, thank you so much for having me.
So, when I first heard the verdict, I couldn’t help but think about the suffering that my brother have went through all these years, and the suffering of my family and the many other families who are a victim of this hacking.
So, four years ago — more than four years ago, my brother was kidnapped from his work at the Red Cross in Riyadh and disappeared for years and deprived of any communication or even access to legal counsel. During his disappearance, he was brutally tortured with electric shocks, beatings, sleep deprivation. They broke his hand and smashed his fingers, saying, “This is the hand you tweet with.” My brother ended up in the intensive care unit for days, for almost a week, fighting for his life, as a result of the torture.
And only after three years of disappearance and held without any charge, he was brought to a secret sham trial, where he got sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, followed by 20 years travel ban, for running a satirical Twitter account. That same Twitter account was part of the Saudi government list of Twitter accounts that they wanted to hack.
And as we’ve seen from this case, this verdict, it represents a step forward towards accountability. But yet, still it’s not justice, because my brother is still disappeared. We have no communication whatsoever with my brother at all. We’ve been deprived completely from any communication with my brother. He’s been held in solitary confinement for years, deprived of any contact with us at all.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what kind of recourse do you have right now? And have you been in touch with the Biden administration, not to mention the leadership at Twitter?
AREEJ AL-SADHAN: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’ve been in contact with the U.S. officials continuously about my brother’s case. The recent visit of President Biden to Saudi Arabia — unfortunately, there haven’t been any improvement to human rights. My brother continues to be disappeared. We haven’t been able to communicate with him at all. And instead from President Biden promising to improve human rights and make human rights the center of his foreign policy, instead he rewarded MBS with a fist bump, basically validating MBS on the world stage, emboldening MBS to commit more human rights abuses against our families, our loved ones and against many innocent people. It is really terrifying for us and many other victims out there of this brutal regime. And unfortunately, so far we haven’t heard any news or any update about my brother’s case. He continues to be disappeared. We have no communication whatsoever with my brother.
AMY GOODMAN: In a statement, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, Stephanie Hinds, said, quote, “In this case, the government demonstrated, and the jury found, that Abouammo violated a sacred trust to keep private personal information from Twitter’s customers and sold private customer information to a foreign government. … As this case demonstrates, we will not tolerate the misuse of personal information or attempts by foreign governments to recruit secret, malign agents at American technology companies.” Do you hold out hope that this will be the case?
AREEJ AL-SADHAN: I absolutely hold hope for, definitely. And just to mention, Abouammo is only the symptom, the symptom of a much bigger problem. The targeting of activists and anyone who is at all speaking up or doing any human rights activism is very risky from — you know, the Saudi government will target anyone and will use any mean they can. As we’ve seen, they’ve used a U.S. company here, based in the U.S., to target activists in the U.S. and also in other places around the world. Part of that, they will go to lengths to kidnap people, even murder people, to silence them.
So, Abouammo is only one person, but there are many others out there who are still free and who are still targeting people. And as we’ve seen, Abouammo received orders directly from Bader al-Asaker, who is the right-hand man of MBS, asking him personally to hack these accounts and to leak their personal information. If that didn’t happen, my brother wouldn’t be in prison today, tortured and disappeared and deprived of any communication with us completely.
So, the risks are really high. And as even me, personally, for speaking up, I get targeted and harassed continuously online by Saudi agents, who are trying to silence me so I don’t speak about the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Walden, what responsibility does Twitter have in protecting users’ information about abusive regimes? After reaching the verdict, one juror reportedly told Abouammo’s lawyers that she wanted Twitter to bear, quote, “a little more responsibility for this.”
JIM WALDEN: Well, first of all, Amy, thank you for having me on.
And I would say that Twitter and other social media companies have more than a little responsibility for what’s happening, not just with respect to Abdulrahman’s case and the case of other disappeared Saudi human rights activists and outspoken dissidents, but across a much broader array of misconduct. I mean, let’s be clear: These social media companies have set up Trojan horses here on U.S. soil. This is not Fancy Bear in a bunker outside of Moscow or a similar bunker outside of Riyadh. This is domains here in the United States that are being invaded by mal actors for lots of different purposes, whether it is to influence our elections, to commit fraud, to enhance transnational repression, as was true with respect to Abdulrahman.
And if the social media companies cannot police themselves and cannot put up structures to prevent this kind of action from happening — not even outside of their businesses, inside their businesses — then Congress needs to act with more robustness and verve to create regulations to require social media companies to have a meaningful compliance system — if you will, an internal police force — to guard against this kind of action happening again.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to The New York Times, a Twitter spokesperson said the company had cooperated with law enforcement during the trial of Ahmad Abouammo. Twitter security executive Seth Wilson testified at the trial that Abouammo’s breach of users’ confidential information had been inappropriate. After the verdict was delivered, Wilson tweeted, “Been a long road to get to this conviction. Appreciate the efforts of so many to see that justice was done.” But how high up was — I mean, while it was tried to — some tried to say this is a low-level Twitter employee. It looks like, looking at The New York Times, lawyers for Mr. Abouammo described him as merely a Twitter employee who had been doing his job. Other media partnership managers — other media partnership managers at Twitter also developed close relationships with influential people who used the platform and provided white-glove service, helping them become verified on Twitter, handling their complaints about impersonators and troublesome accounts. Can you talk more about their responsibility?
JIM WALDEN: I can. And the only thing that I agree with him about is that the Department of Justice deserves a lot of credit for aggressively going after this one person.
But the question still remains: Why — if he was a low-level person, what the hell is he doing with the personal data of the user? Why is a low-level Twitter employee allowed to get access to the part of the system that allows them to go beyond the handle and find the information of the actual person who’s using their account? Anonymous posting is obviously permitted. That should be something that’s behind a firewall, that is protected from Twitter’s employees, and that only people with certain clearance have access to. And Twitter clearly did not have any sort of firewall to prevent that information from getting in the wrong hands, and look what happened. It did.
And what did it result in? It resulted in an aid worker, who was running an account with satire, getting arrested, tortured systematically, deprived of legal counsel, isolated from his family, and now subject to a 20-year prison sentence. Right? This is the most un-American activity you can possibly imagine.
And for Twitter to say that it did enough by cooperating after the fact is simply nonsense. They were obligated to cooperate. And moreover, it was in their PR interest to cooperate so that they could look like they were good citizens. If they were good citizens, they would have a compliance structure where a user’s anonymous information is not generally available to Twitter employees, it is behind a protected firewall, and only high-level people with clearance for a specific purpose can access that information.
AMY GOODMAN: Areej al-Sadhan, can you talk about what you’re doing now to have your brother freed? Is it true that they broke his hand, smashed his fingers, saying, “This is the hand you tweet with. This is the hand you write with”?
AREEJ AL-SADHAN: Yes, yes, definitely. The brutality of the Saudi officials have no limits, unfortunately. Just like we’ve seen with the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, there are thousands who are being brutally tortured. Unfortunately, my brother is one of them. He was brutally tortured, to the point that they broke his hand, saying, “This is the hand you tweet with.” And he almost lost his life as part of the torture, the brutal torture he was going through. And on top of that, they left him in solitary confinement for years, basically just to add to the — more to the torture, the psychological torture of depriving him of any communication with us or even having access to any fair legal counsel.
So, what I’ve been doing is I’ve been speaking as much as I can publicly about the abuses that is happening to us, as personally to my family, and specifically to my brother, and to many — to also the other cases that I learn about along this journey. So, the only option was left for me is just to come out and speak out about the abuses. We’ve been silent for a year, hoping that the Saudi government will be — will respond to our questions. But, unfortunately, they’ve been ignoring and ignoring us, and there was no response or no help at all from their end. So I had no option but to start speaking out publicly, which was a huge risk, of course, because I continuously receive threats to silence me.
So, the one thing that we — I can do or we can do is to keep speaking up and to ask for action from our U.S. government to take action against these human rights abuses. I’ve been trying to reach out to the Biden administration personally to highlight my brother’s case. And they are, of course, aware of my brother’s case, among many other cases, especially of U.S. families who suffered from human rights abuses. But so far, we haven’t seen action from the Biden administration. My brother is still disappeared. We need a clear demand from the Saudi government to release my brother and all the other innocent people who are detained for no reason except for exercising their right to freedom of speech.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, and we will continue to follow your brother’s case, as well as others. Areej al-Sadhan is the sister of the humanitarian aid worker, online activist Abdulrahman al-Sadhan. And Jim Walden is the lawyer for the al-Sadhan family. We thank you both so much.
Coming up, we speak to Walden Bello, the longtime Filipino activist, former vice-presidential candidate. He was arrested in the Philippines on Monday on “cyber libel” charges. Stay with us.