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Rapid Response Team: 0800 559 3500
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Rapid Response Team: 0800 559 3500
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Financial crime specialists Rahman Ravelli, assesses the US’ pursuit of two foreign nationals accused of sanctions violation

10 May 2022

US prosecutors have charged a UK national and a Spanish citizen with helping programmer Virgil Griffith evade US sanctions on North Korea.

Griffith, the creator of the blockchain Ethereum, was jailed for 63 months after pleading guilty to conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act; the legislation that is at the heart of the US sanctions regime. He was accused of assisting North Korea by giving a 2019 presentation in its capital Pyongyang about how digital currency could be used to both launder money and evade sanctions. 

Alejandro Cao De Benos, 47, and Christopher Emms , 30, have been accused of planning the Pyongyang conference with Griffith. They are charged with one count of conspiring to violate and evade US sanctions that were imposed on North Korea in 2008 under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. 

According to the indictment, Cao De Benos founded the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), a Spanish pro-North Korea group. Emms is said to be the KFA’s technology adviser. 

Emms and Cao De Benos, who are at large, are alleged to have helped North Korea with cryptocurrency and blockchain services after the conference.

Their current situation shows that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) is aggressively going after alleged sanctions violators with criminal charges.  

The DOJ has even gone as far as to say that sanctions are now the “new FCPA” - the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits bribery -  in terms of its enforcement priorities. Its pursuit of these foreign individuals shows that the DOJ takes a wide-ranging view of its jurisdiction.  Griffith’s imprisonment highlights the severe risks faced by those involved in activities anywhere in the world that could be viewed as facilitating US sanctions violations.

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