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Brit sought for North Korea sanctions breach says US law doesn’t apply to him

Christopher Emms says he’s only willing to face charges in UK for his role in 2019 crypto conference in Pyongyang


Christopher Emms during a video call with NK News, July 2022 | Image: NK News

A British national accused of conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions on North Korea is now stuck in Saudi Arabia, which he says has prevented him from leaving after the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) added him to its most wanted list earlier this year.


Christopher Emms, a 30-year-old blockchain and cryptocurrency specialist, was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in April 2022 in connection to sanctions breaches stemming from his participation in a 2019 crypto conference in Pyongyang.


But he told NK News that he doesn’t believe the U.S. has any grounds to pursue him for his activities in North Korea, calling the charges against him “bonkers.”


“If a British extradition judge states that I have committed a crime — of which I am applicable to be tried on — I’ll go,” he said in a video call last week. “But I’m not going to go to the U.S. to face the music for … a law that I don’t feel applies to me.”


The 2019 crypto conference is the same one attended by Virgil Griffith, a U.S. national now serving a 63-month prison sentence for helping North Korea evade sanctions through his participation in the event.


The DOJ has accused Emms of working with Griffith and Alejandro Cao de Benos, head of the pro-DPRK Korea Friendship Association, to “teach and advise members of the North Korean government on cutting-edge cryptocurrency and blockchain technology” during the conference.


Emms admits he played a “minor role” in the crypto conference, sharing information “readily accessible from Google.” But he described his time in North Korea as just “a quirky tourist trip” to a country that — amid the summitry of 2018 and 2019 — “was about to open up in a radical way and engage with the West.”


“I didn’t realize in any way, shape or form that U.S. law could ever apply to me,” Emms told NK News, adding he had “minimal contact” with Griffith and none with any North Koreans prior to or after his visit to Pyongyang.


“I’m not American; I’m British. I’ve never been a resident of the United States. I wasn’t in the United States … so why does [this law] apply at all?”


Neither the DOJ nor the FBI responded to NK News inquiries about Emm’s case.


LEGAL LIMBO

Experts and lawyers offered contrasting assessments of the legality of the U.S. charges against Emms.


Jumin Lee, a U.S.-based attorney with experience working on North Korea-related cases, said there is nothing about the case that indicates the law is being applied to him in an “unusual way.”


“Unilateral sanctions wouldn’t have much teeth if you could not apply them extraterritorially or to foreign nationals,” Lee told NK News.


And Anthony Ruggiero, senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said charges against individuals like Emms “are an integral part of enforcing U.S. sanctions against North Korea” and that “third-party individuals, companies and banks must ensure that they are not aiding the Kim regime’s sanctions efforts.”


But Radha Stirling of the U.K.-based Detained in Dubai, which has been helping Emms with his case, said the U.S. has no jurisdiction over the British national.


“It’s a massive overreach of U.S. enforcement to seek to impose on the sovereignty of both Britain and Saudi by claiming foreign nationals are subject to U.S. law,” she told NK News.


“As a British citizen, Saudi should allow him to return to the U.K. or otherwise they risk violating United Nations policies on sovereignty,” she continued. “(Likewise) we would not accept a U.S. citizen to be extradited from Britain to Saudi for an alleged Saudi violation committed in a third nation.”


Virgil Griffith at the 2019 cryptocurrency conference in Pyongyang that Christopher Emms also attended. The words “No sanctions!” are written on a whiteboard behind Griffith. Image: | United States District Court for the Southern District of New York

SENDING A MESSAGE

With no sign of the U.S. justice system dropping its interest any time soon, Emms faces an uncertain future and dwindling financial resources to stay afloat.


In the “best case,” Emms said, Saudi would lift the travel ban, he would be arrested upon arrival in the U.K. and then he would go through an extradition process to the U.S.


“I’m confident — and the lawyers that I’ve got in the U.K. are confident — that we can win that extradition request, we can win the case,” he said.


Saudi Arabia could, however, choose to extradite Emms to the U.S., where he could be transferred to the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center. Griffith was kept at the facility ahead of his court appearance in the U.S. Southern District of New York.


While London last year offered “complete solidarity” to U.K. citizens targeted by Chinese sanctions, Emms told NK News no such reprieve has been relayed to him, nor have prosecutors extended a plea deal to him.


Neither the Saudi nor British foreign ministries responded to NK News requests for comment.


Emms estimates his legal battle, as well as his months long sojourn in the Saudi kingdom, has cost “nearly a million dollars” — which he says represents all his life savings. He also told NK News that his bank accounts have been frozen since late April after the U.S. indictment went public.


For now, the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) are providing Emms with consular support, according to letters he posted on social media.


“I’m here living now, really, off the grace and goodwill of friends and family in order to pay the bills,” he explained.


Emms said he thinks the U.S. justice system is targeting him as a warning to others.


“You can’t prosecute everyone in the world for everything, so you tend to make examples of certain people,” he said.


(Original article: NK NEWS: Chad O'Carroll July 15, 2022) (Edited by Arius Derr)

 

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