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Ethereum dev must face jury for allegedly helping North Korea evade sanctions

Virgil Griffith, a crypto developer accused of helping North Korea evade sanctions through speaking at a Pyongyang crypto conference in 2019, must now face a jury.

A New York federal judge has denied an Ethereum developer’s motion to dismiss criminal charges over allegations he assisted the North Korean regime to bypass U.S. sanctions.

The developer and former-hacker, Virgil Griffith, is accused of helping North Korea evade economic sanctions by delivering a speech during a Pyongyang blockchain conference in April 2019.

Law360 reported that in his motion, Griffith had claimed the speech he delivered at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference was protected by his First Amendment right to free speech.

Griffith also requested a bill of particulars, claiming he was unable to prepare for the hearing as the four-page indictment against him was “short and vague,” and lacked specific detail outlining his criminal conduct. However, the judge also rejected this request, finding that “adequate notice of the charges against Griffith” had been provided.

The judge cited text messages Griffith allegedly sent to colleagues during the lead up to the conference, stating:

“We’d love to make an Ethereum trip to the DPRK and set up an Ethereum node […] It’ll help them circumvent the current sanctions on them.”

Another message apparently noted that while Griffith did not know exactly what the purpose of the North Korean administration’s interest in crypto assets was, he speculated it was “probably avoiding sanctions.”

Griffith’s fate must now be determined by a jury.

In January 2019, the U.S. state department denied Griffith’s request to travel to the North Korean capital to discuss “the applications of blockchain technology to business and anti-corruption.”

Despite the rejection, Griffith successfully sought approval from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s UN Mission in Manhattan, and was issued a visa one month later.

The Department of Justice announced Griffith’s arrest on Nov. 29, 2019, with U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman alleging that Griffith “provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions.”

A January 2020 indictment charged Griffith with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act by seeking to provide “services” to North Korea.

While Griffith has claimed his speech was protected by the act’s “information exemption” — characterizing the presentation as delivering “information that one could readily learn from a Google search” — the prosecution claims the speech could empower Kim Jong Un’s administration to evade sanctions and launder money.

The judge also noted that the fact Griffith did not receive financial remuneration for the speech may not impact the jury’s ruling, stating:

“Even if Griffith’s presentation at the conference, taken in isolation, did not qualify as the provision of services, or was exempt under the information exception, evidence at trial may be sufficient to demonstrate his guilt in conspiring to provide services.”

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