Three people, including two former Twitter employees, were charged by a US court on Wednesday for spying on users critical of Saudi Arabia's policies and handing over private user data to Saudi officials in exchange of payment.
US Justice Department identified ex-Twitter employees, Ali Alzabaah and Ahmed Aboummo, and Ahmed Almutairi who had been working for the Saudi royal family without registering as foreign agents, reported Reuters.
According to a statement, Abouammo in 2015 had accessed the Twitter account of a user known to be a critic of the Saudi government. He was able to gather details such as email address and telephone number of the user. Another Saudi royal family critic's account was also accessed and the user's personal data were retrieved.
"The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter's internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users," said US Attorney David Anderson. "US law protects US companies from such an unlawful foreign intrusion. We will not allow US companies or US technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of US law," he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Investigation revealed that the accused were guided by a Saudi official who worked under a prosecutor called "Royal family Member-1". According to the Washington Post, the Royal family is identified to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The case shed light on the wider issue of surveillance and intolerance by the Kingdom towards its dissenters and came under international spotlight after the murder of Saudi critic and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Turkey with several investigations revealing that the murder was carried out by Saudi government officials under instructions from the Crown Prince.
The chain of command
A United Nations-led probe in June had established that "a planned, organised, well-resourced and premeditated extrajudicial killings" was carried forth by the state of Saudi Arabia and should be held accountable. The report was presented to the UN Human Rights Council.
However, last month a UN independent investigator, Agnes Callarard, said the "chain of command", which are the people involved in the ordering or turning blind eye to Khashoggi's murder, needs to be "unpacked".
"That I deeply regret — that the secretary-general and other institutions within the UN did not take this opportunity to push further our understanding of the chain of command, and our commitment to tackling chain of command," she was quoted as saying.
While several leads to the investigation have indicated the Saudi crown prince's role in the murder, the Saudi government have criticised Callamard's 101-page report of not following proper procedures and using unverified sourcing.
The reveal came a month after the Saudi prince said the killing of the Washington Post columnist happened under his watch but without his knowledge.
Speaking to the CBS show "60 Minutes" he denied ordering Khashoggi's murder but stated that he bears "full responsibility" as the killing was carried out by his government's officials and the incident was a "mistake".
As per reports, while eleven suspects have been put on trial in confidential proceedings, only a few hearings have taken place. The trial also does not include the former top advisor to the prince, Saud al-Qahtani, who has been sanctioned by the US for his alleged role in the execution operation.