The US has issued an Interpol Red Notice against Chris Emms for allegedly violating US sanctions against North Korea (DPRK). Emms is currently held in Saudi Arabia as he fights against the US extradition request. The US has cast a wide net over blockchain professionals in an attempt to make an example of them but in doing so, has displayed what can only be described as “State Harassment”.
30 year old Crypto expert Chris Emms, from Reigate, Surrey, has found himself stuck in Saudi Arabia, fighting extradition to the United States who have accused him of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) despite not being a “US person” and thus not subject to the legislation. After the Julian Assange case, the US has been emboldened to further push for the extraterritorial application of US laws to foreign nationals even where legislation specifically only applies to Americans.
Once a keen theatre director, Emms was drawn to technology early on and began his career heading up sales for the first ever crypto debit card issuer. Emms then built TokenKey, an innovative company offering off the shelf Initial Coin Offering (ICO) solutions, and became a highly sought after expert, advisor and consultant to governments, including Her Majesty’s.
Emms' notoriety landed him a leading position as head of partnerships and business development with Bitcoin.com, working directly for owner Roger Ver.
The blockchain expert has been a prominent speaker on regulatory issues and a broker and consultant for companies with blockchain and web3. The highly motivated entrepreneur went on to open the first ever Kosher food distribution company in the Gulf, significantly investing into the region and giving him the opportunity to play a crucial role in the Abraham Accords, working and educating businesses in the GCC on Jewish customs and relations alongside the UAE Israel Business Council.
“In 2018, I was travelling frequently and presenting all over the world almost every other week”, explains Chris. “When Spanish national Alejandro Cao de Benos asked me to go to North Korea for another conference, I checked the FCDO travel advice for North Korea which indicated no issues and so I agreed to attend. With Trump’s meetings, it also appeared the relationship between the countries was improving. It was an uneventful few days with like minded people, just like any other.” Virgil Griffith was supposed to be the only speaker but they ran out of content to cover the two days and began asking other attendees to fill in the gaps. “I was asked to speak briefly about topics I have spoken about publicly before, the content was nothing new or secret and I had absolutely no idea that I could ever be accused of any wrongdoing”.
Mr Cao De Benos asked Emms to enquire if other industry peers would be interested in attending and listed Emms’ name on the conference website as a speaker. Emms commented “I did not see any issue with this. “I had checked whether there were any restrictions on me as a British citizen and there were none”.
Emms attended the event and was asked to speak along with US citizen Virgil Griffith and others whom he had not met until the first day of the conference. On the day of arrival though, all attendees had their belongings rigorously searched and Argentinian POAP founder, Patricio Worthalter, was accused of possessing a pornographic video on his laptop. This put the whole group on edge whose passports were confiscated as a result. They feared a small step out of line could lead to their detention. From that moment on, attendees were very aware of their language and conduct during the trip, ensuring not to inadvertently offend the hosts. Emms described the visit as a sort of “tourist propaganda event” where attendees were escorted to schools and museums with local guides. They weren’t allowed to interact with North Koreans and other than the guided tours, they were not even allowed to leave the confines of their hotel.
In preparation, Mr Cao de Benos provided them with a number of documents and asked the speakers to incorporate the content that was obtained from publicly available google searches. Mr Cao de Benos had mistakenly listed Emms as an organiser of the event but Emms had no role as an organiser at all and he was not consulted or asked to be included on the website.. Emms confirmed, “I did not perform any organisation of the event, I did not have authority to do so and was careful not to do so”.
Emms spoke at the conference, covering information that can be found freely on the internet to which North Koreans have access to. “We were even shown libraries where this information could be accessed”, recalls Emms. Emms provided no information that could have helped the government evade US sanctions against them and no information that was secret nor unavailable on Google.
Emms was relieved when the conference he branded “uneventful and boring” was over. He returned to the UK later that month but was “shocked” to be taken aside on arrival and questioned in relation to the conference. He dutifully cooperated but it bothered him. Wanting to ensure there would be no further issues, he telephoned the British Intelligence Services hotline to clarify anything that was of interest to them, but they were not interested in pursuing the matter. Emms put the matter to rest and continued with his business and travels until he was made aware that another speaker in November 2019, Ethereum founder Mr Virgil Griffith, had been arrested. Griffith was accused of violating the IEEPA by providing information to North Korea. Griffith professed his innocence, but was under enormous pressure to agree to a plea bargain in return for a reduced sentence.
Given his previous interactions with British authorities, Emms thought it prudent to engage a US representative to contact authorities on his behalf to see whether they had flagged any issues. They had no interest in liaising until 2021 when it became clear they were building a case against him. Emms was aghast. It seemed impossible. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Why would he be prosecuted by the US when he had not violated any British or international laws? He wasn’t a US citizen or US person. How could this be? Emms was not going to surrender to the US under these circumstances but informed the British authorities that he would happily cooperate with them or surrender himself in the event that they felt he had committed a crime. “You couldn’t ask for a more reasonable and cooperative subject”, said Radha Stirling, who is representing Mr Emms. “I could never advise anyone to surrender to a foreign jurisdiction that has no legal authority to prosecute them. This would be endorsing an overreach of powers and the extraterritorial application of laws to foreign nationals who are not subject to them. If another country like China or Russia attempted to do this to a British citizen, we would be outraged. We can not accept double standards simply because it’s America, for that would set a dangerous precedent”.
Comforted that the UK was satisfied Emms had not violated any laws, he continued life as normal, but he didn’t know the US often goes to extreme measures to pursue targets. He expected they would consider him of trivial interest. Emms did not count on Interpol being used as a mechanism to secure him abroad, so when he travelled to Saudi Arabia for the LEAP tech conference, he had expected to be in and out in a matter of days but then his nightmare began.
When Emms checked in for his return flight on the 4th of February 2022, his passport raised an alert and he was taken to the airport detention facility. He was held in a cell with around fifty other people before being cuffed and shackled and taken to an interrogation centre where he was put in front of two prosecutors. Emms was told the US had requested his extradition and asked whether he would agree to surrender or not. Terrified by the news and not knowing what would happen next, Emms promptly declined the offer and was given bail. His family and friends expected the worst, telling Stirling “It’s unimaginable that anyone could treat Chris like a criminal when all he’s done is attend a seminar. Chris is the gentlest and most loving person anyone could hope for in their lives. He has always been studious and ethical. Even the British government respects and seeks his expertise and he’s never violated any law, ever. What he and we are going through is the worst stress of our lives. It would be a crime against humanity for America to be able to just take our loved ones and plonk them in jails notorious for human rights violations when the laws don’t even apply in the UK! I can’t believe it and I pray for the US to drop any case against Chris. Don’t put him through this. The British government needs to stand up for its people. We are not American, we are British and if we have committed no crime in Britain or under international law, how can the UK allow the US to do this?” Emms and his supporters intends to lobby the government to help prevent the extraterritorial enforcement of US law against British citizens.
Mr Emms has now been held in Saudi for nearly three months at significant expense and under extremely stressful conditions. Since hiring US lawyers, Emms has spent his life savings on lawyers with bills amounting to hundreds of thousands. Criminal investigations and extradition proceedings are not cheap. IPEX Reform founder, Radha Stirling says “sometimes governments issue Interpol warrants purely to harass, punish, extort or pressure victims. This kind of ‘Interpol Abuse’ is outrageous. The FBI is fully aware that the IEEPA does not apply to non-US persons, but has reported him to Interpol with the flimsiest of evidence I’ve ever seen. If they are aware the Act does not apply to him, why have they reported him to Interpol? It can only be described as State harassment. They ‘persuaded’ a reluctant Virgil Griffith to enter a guilty plea and they want another body in the grave. This is America’s opportunity to send a message to crypto professionals that “we can get you anywhere”. It’s highly suspicious that the Interpol Red Notice only came to light while Chris was in Saudi Arabia. We have to consider that they may have gone jurisdiction shopping and wanted him held in Saudi rather than the UK as this would put Chris at a disadvantage.”
Foreign nationals have been charged under the IEEPA but they have been detained in the US and ended up pleading guilty to ensure they didn’t risk a life sentence. No foreign national has been successfully prosecuted under this Act. American ‘justice’ relies largely on intimidation.
US authorities finally sent a communication to Saudi Arabia outlining the allegations against Emms. The US accused him of violating the IEEPA by:
Accusation 1: Supplying visa advice to Virgil Griffith;
Emms did not give visa advice to Virgil Griffith. Emms met Griffith at the event and was in no way involved with encouraging him to attend the event or organising his attendance.
Accusation 2: Organising the Pyongyang event;
Emms did not organise the event and nor did he have any authority to do so. Emms did not act in any way that could be construed as organising the event. The event was organised by DPRK and their Spanish representative.
Accusation 3:Providing information to DPRK that would assist in circumventing sanctions, specifically showing a whiteboard drawing that displayed a smiley face with “no sanctions” written there.
Emms provided only information already available in the public domain and that he had previously given at other conferences. There was nothing new or illicit about his content and he was not responsible for the whiteboard drawing that the US has included as their “evidence”. It is not even his writing but that of Griffith’s which they have already presented as evidence against him.
The charges are essentially bogus and a far reach for the FBI. “If only the FBI went to such extents when US yacht Nostromo was attacked and US citizens kidnapped”, commented Stirling who has been surprised at the FBI’s tenacity in persecuting crypto professionals.
Emms has taken the time in Saudi to go over the Pyongyang conference again and again. “We were not treated as friends of North Korea. Our passports were confiscated and before leaving, I underwent an interrogation and had a full room search. It wasn’t pleasant. If I have violated the laws of the United Kingdom, I am more than willing to admit guilt and face the consequences of my actions. However, after having in-depth conversations with officials and legal counsel in the US, Saudi and the UK, I am confident I’m not guilty of any crime of which the US has accused me and I will be fighting for justice.
Emms has made it abundantly clear that he was not associated with Griffith, was not an organiser, “co-conspirator” or advisor. Emms was not aware of Griffith’s conduct prior to the conference nor about any of his apparent attempts to engage in business with North Korea. “This is not a matter that I in any way condone should he not have permission from the relevant authorities”.
Family and friends of Chris told Stirling “Chris has used his knowledge to help the church increase transparency, harnessing the power of blockchain to empower the poor in developing worlds. He’s always been actively involved in the community and encouraged respect and diversity. That’s why he did so well with the Abraham Accords too. He won’t plead guilty to supporting the Korean regime. As tempting as it is when you are afraid, it’s never the right thing to do. He believes in fairness and transparency and that doesn’t include allowing yourself to be bullied, even if it is by the United States of America”.
Stirling intends to fight the charges all the way, “Authorities threaten and intimidate victims into guilty pleas and promise lighter sentences and better prison conditions. These are not the indicators of a fair judiciary, these are issues that we criticise regularly in countries like the UAE, China and Russia. It is disappointing to see these authoritarian patterns in Western nations and right there in New York.
“We will rigorously fight against extradition.”