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Lawsuit filed against Twitter, Saudi Arabia; claims acts of transnational repression committed

A humanitarian aid worker who used an anonymous Twitter account to mock Saudi Arabia about its economy has filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the social media platform, the kingdom and a number of individuals alleging an attempt to silence critics overseas.

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, was working for the Red Crescent in Riyadh in 2018 when plain-clothed security forces entered the office of the Red Crescent offices in Riyadh. He was taken away without any explanation.

How the Saudi government linked al-Sadhan to the Twitter account remains a mystery. In April 2021, the anti-terrorism court where he was tried handed down a prison sentence of 20 years for al-Sadhan, followed by a 20-year travel ban. Al-Sadhan has appealed the ruling.

In 2019, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen and former media partnership manager for Twitter’s Middle East region, was charged with acting as an agent of Saudi Arabia without registering with the U.S. government. The complaint also alleged that Saudi citizen Ali Alzabarah, who worked as an engineer at Twitter, accessed confidential Twitter data about users, their email addresses, phone numbers and IP addresses, the latter of which be used to identify a user’s location. A third man named in FBI complaint is Saudi citizen Ahmed Al-Mutairi, who is said to have worked with an unnamed member of the Saudi royal family as an intermediary.

Abouammo was convicted last summer of failing to register as an agent for Saudi Arabia and other charges.

On Tuesday al-Sadhan and his sister Areej al-Sadhan, a dual Saudi-U.S. citizen living in California, sued Twitter Inc. and Saudi Arabia, alleging that they are members of a racketeering enterprise that seeks to extend the authoritarian control of Saudi Arabia beyond its borders and silence its critics. The suit, which seeks a trial by jury, also names as defendants Abouammo, Alzabarah and Al-Mutairi.

The lawsuit alleges that members of the “Saudi Criminal Enterprise” unlawfully surveilled, killed, tortured, disappeared, kidnapped, extorted and threatened perceived dissidents to silence their speech and to export its terror, repression and control to the United States.

The complaint also alleges that the defendant Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, based in Fairfax, Virginia, is a tool the Saudi government uses to surveil, stalk, and harass dissidents and U.S-based Saudi students who criticize the kingdom. Alzabarah was a recipient of a SACM scholarship before he worked at Twitter, according to the plaintiffs.

"It shouldn’t require a federal lawsuit for a U.S. citizen to protect herself from Saudi Arabia’s thugs, but Areej has been left with no other options. We hope U.S. courts can provide them both with some measure of justice and protection that is sadly unavailable elsewhere,” Andrea J. Prasow, executive director of the Freedom Initiative, said in a statement.

Prasow filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The Freedom Initiative is a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for prisoners wrongfully detained in the Middle East and North Africa.

The public relations office of Twitter was disbanded by Elon Musk after he acquired the company last year. A request for comment from the company was answered with an automated email.