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Mohammed bin Salman and Twitter sued under law created for organised crime

Abdulrahman and Areej al-Sadhan have filed lawsuit against Twitter and Saudi Arabia for transnational repression
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan and his sister Areej al-Sadhan, prior to his detention (Courtesy of Areej al-Sadhan)

A humanitarian aid worker who used an anonymous Twitter account to criticise Saudi Arabia has filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the social media platform, the kingdom, and its crown prince and prime minister, Mohammed bin Salman.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a Red Crescent worker in Riyadh, was arrested without a warrant or charge in the kingdom in 2018 and sentenced to 20 years in prison along with receiving a two-decade travel ban.

His detention was believed to be linked to an anonymous Twitter account he ran, from which he commented on human rights and social justice issues in Saudi Arabia. 

The case stirred questions about how Saudi Arabia obtained information on the person behind the social media account.

In 2019, US prosecutors accused Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen and former media partnership manager for Twitter’s Middle East region, and former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, of being enlisted by Saudi officials between 2014 and 2015 to obtain private information on Twitter accounts critical of Riyadh.

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In August 2022 Abouammo was convicted by a US court of acting as an agent for Saudi Arabia, money laundering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and falsifying records.

Alzabarah fled the US in December 2015 after Twitter management confronted him. He escaped FBI surveillance and boarded a flight with his wife and child to Saudi Arabia where he took a job at the Misk Foundation, a charitable organisation established by Mohammed bin Salman. Alzabarah is wanted on a charge of failing to register in the US as an agent of a foreign government as required by US law. 

Ahmed Almutairi, a third Saudi national, was also charged with acting as an unauthorised agent of a foreign government for working as an intermediary between a Saudi official and Alzabarah and Abouammo.

On Tuesday Abdulrahman and his sister, Areej, a dual US-Saudi citizen, filed the lawsuit alleging that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia used its commercial relationship with Twitter to crush dissent and forcibly disappear government critics. 

The case also alleges that Twitter enabled its co-conspirators to commit acts of transnational repression, and even "permitted the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to enjoy an equity stake in Twitter itself".

“Areej and Abdulrahman have endured immense harm at the direction of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which continues to hold Abdulrahman hostage, lording its control to keep both him and his sister quiet,” a statement released by the plaintiff's lawyers on Tuesday and viewed by Middle East Eye said.

According to her lawyers, Areej was harassed and stalked in an attempt to silence her after she spoke out about her brother's arrest.

The plaintiffs allege that the "criminal enterprise" accessed and transmitted confidential Twitter user data more than 30,000 times, citing evidence introduced by federal prosecutors at Abouammo’s trial.

The lawsuit also names Mohammed bin Salman as an alleged co-conspirator.

Previous attempts to sue the crown prince have failed to gain traction. In November, the Biden administration said Mohammed bin Salman should have immunity in a separate lawsuit filed against him over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The complaint alleges that the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, based in Fairfax, Virginia, was used as a base by the Saudi government to surveil, stalk, and harass dissidents and US-based Saudi students who criticise the kingdom. The plaintiffs say that Alzabarah received a scholarship from the mission before he was hired by Twitter.

Saud al-Qahtani, a former top aide to Mohammed bin Salman, is also named in the lawsuit. Qahtani was a longtime fixer for the crown prince and reportedly played a key role in targeting Khashoggi, whose 2018 killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, was sanctioned by the crown prince, according to a classified CIA report. 

The lawsuit was filed by Andrea Prasow in the US District Court for the Northern District of California under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act. The law was originally passed in the 1970s during the Richard Nixon presidency as part of the US federal government's crackdown on the mafia but has since found more widespread use.

Prasow is with the Freedom Initiative, a Washington DC-based nonprofit organisation dedicated to advocating for prisoners wrongfully detained in the Middle East and North Africa.

Middle East Eye reached out to Twitter and Saudi Arabia's embassy in the US for comment but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.

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