Ethereum Dev Contests Charges Of Violating US-North Korea Sanctions

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In Brief
  • Virgil Griffith was indicted by the US. Department of Justice in January 2020 for speaking at a North Korean crypto conference in April 2019.

  • Prosecutors accuse Griffith of teaching North Korean officials to circumvent U.S. sanctions by using cryptocurrencies.

  • Griffith contends that all information he shared with North Korean officials is already in the public domain and cannot be classified as restricted services.

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Virgil Griffith, a former Ethereum Foundation developer who was indicted and arrested in January 2020 for attending a cryptocurrency conference in North Korea has filed his defense in court. The case, which is being prosecuted in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York accuses Griffith of teaching North Korean officials to circumvent U.S. sanctions by using cryptocurrencies.

At the time he attended the conference in April 2019, Griffith was the Head of Special Projects at the Ethereum Foundation but was suspended from the position shortly after his arrest.

In a motion to dismiss his indictment filed on Oct 22, defense lawyer Brian Klein contends that Griffith’s appearance at the conference was not a “service” and hence did not violate Treasury Department laws.

Griffith’s Legal Troubles

According to the indictment, Griffith applied for permission to travel to North Korea to speak at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference on Apr 22 and 23. He was denied this permission but then attended the conference anyway, having traveled to North Korea via China. 

 

The U.S. has no official diplomatic relations with North Korea, and U.S. citizens are not permitted to travel to the country without special permission from the State Department. The indictment further stated that at the conference, Griffith spoke about how to use cryptocurrency to evade U.S. sanctions and circumvent restrictions in the global banking system.

Griffith was arrested and interviewed by federal agents on Nov 12, 2019, at the Los Angeles International airport on suspicion of violating Executive Order 13722, which prohibits U.S. citizens from exporting services to or carrying out certain transactions with North Korea. He was later released to his parents’ house on a $1 million bond.

The First Amendment Defense

Brian Klein argues that while Griffith did speak at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, he in fact gave “a highly general speech based on publicly available information.” This information, the defense argues, is publicly available and is comparable to the sort of information Griffith regularly gave in conferences around the world.

As such Klein argues, it is not possible to classify Griffith’s appearance in Pyongyang as a “service” under the regulations of the Office of Foreign Asset Controls. Klein further argued that under the First Amendment, Griffith’s speech at the conference is classified as “information” and is thus protected.

An excerpt from the defense filing reads:

Mr. Griffith was not paid to attend a conference and go on a tour of the DPRK. Mr. Griffith was not contracted or procured by anyone, provided no technical advice, and did not act as a consultant. Mr. Griffith’s alleged conduct was neither as specific nor as tailored to a client’s need as to constitute “services.” In short, a general conference speech is simply not the type of conduct that falls within the definition of “services” under the relevant regulations of the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (“OFAC”).

The case remains under consideration at the SDNY District Court and BeInCrypto will provide more updates as they become available.

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David is a journalist, writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared on CNN, The Africa Report, The New Yorker Magazine and The Washington Post. His work as a satirist on 'The Other News,' Nigeria's answer to The Daily Show has featured in the New Yorker Magazine and in the Netflix documentary 'Larry Charles' Dangerous World of Comedy.' In 2018, he was nominated by the US State Department for the 2019 Edward Murrow program for journalists under the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). He tweets at @DavidHundeyin

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