Cryptocurrency insider Christopher Emms, who presented at North Korea’s infamous blockchain “conference,” is fighting what he calls his wrongful detention in Saudi Arabia over the past six months at the hands of the US government.
In February, Emms was arrested in Riyadh’s airport following an Interpol Red Notice issued by the US.
Emms, a 30-year-old British citizen who’d been living in and working for Roger Ver’s Bitcoin.com out of Dubai, had been invited to the capital by the Saudi government to attend its One Giant Leap technology conference. He was apprehended on his way back to the United Arab Emirates.
The Feds allege Emms breached sanctions on North Korea when he traveled to the country in 2019 alongside US citizen Virgil Griffith — the Ethereum programmer recently sentenced to five years’ prison for presenting at the same conference.
US authorities had 45 days from Emms’ arrest to provide evidence of his alleged crimes — only applicable to US citizens, which Emms is not — to support his extradition.
Nothing has been lodged some 150 days later, leaving Emms stranded after posting bail following a one-day stint in a Saudi jail.
In a video interview with Blockworks, Emms said he’s now forced to hop between hotels at his own expense, as he’s ineligible for residency. The US froze his bank accounts and crypto exchange accounts.
“I’m literally borrowing funds from friends and family just to pay the bills; it’s difficult,” Emms said. “The British Embassy has made it clear that they don’t particularly want to help in any meaningful way.”
According to the FBI, which features Emms on its Most Wanted list, Emms planned and organized Pyongyang’s one-day blockchain conference, and allegedly recruited an American crypto expert to join him, arranging his travel to North Korea in violation of US sanctions.
While the crypto expert Emms allegedly recruited wasn’t named, it seems the FBI is referring to Griffith. Feds say Emms answered specific questions about blockchain technology and even proposed plans for smart contracts to serve Pyongyang’s interests, mapping out crypto transactions designed to evade US sanctions.
US authorities, alongside the United Nations, have suggested that Pyongyang funds its nuclear missile programs by Bitcoin-fueled ransomware attacks and cryptocurrency exchange thefts, the fruits of which have amounted to more than $1.3 billion.
Emms said he had accepted an invitation to speak at North Korea’s blockchain conference extended via LinkedIn by Alejandro Cao de Benós, the Spanish political activist and self-styled Special Delegate of North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Cao de Benós is named in an indictment alongside Emms.
Emms said he’d never met or spoken to Griffith until the trip, which occurred as the crypto market had floundered for almost a year following bitcoin’s first surge to $20,000. He was there for about eight days, and the conference occurred after a tour across the country. They visited a new airport, schools, museums, video games arcade — all empty — as well as the peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone.
Eventually, Emms and the rest of the conference invitees — about eight — were taken to a conference room with some 20 people, who mostly seemed uninterested, with practically no preparation amongst the delegates.
Emms and the others had their passports confiscated and were warned the event had “better go well.”
“We were given a load of shit, a paper that had been copied and pasted off Google that was given to us by Cao de Benós with different titles,” Emms told Blockworks. “So, we’re all sort of in the room, and we’re like, ‘OK, who’s going to speak on what?’ We hand these pieces of paper to each other and think, ‘How are we going to deal with this?’”
One of the topics provided by Cao de Benós, Emms said, was “blockchain and peace.” Another was “blockchain and tech,” leaving the delegates to ad-lib much of their presentations.
UK parliament member says US abused Interpol’s Red Notice system
It’s unclear why the US hasn’t complied with Saudi authorities to move Emms’ case along. Radha Stirling, an extradition expert and lawyer working in support of Emms, told Blockworks she’s hoping the Saudi government will close the case, allowing him to return to the UK.
“I think the US is testing where it can export its domestic policy abroad, whether they’ll be successful in requesting the extradition of a foreign national from a foreign jurisdiction,” Stirling said.
“Obviously, they knew [Emms] was in Saudi [Arabia] and thought, this is a jurisdiction that’s going to give him maximum pain,” he added. “They were hoping that he would succumb to the pressure and surrender himself voluntarily, maybe enter a plea bargain and name names of other people who they’re also targeting.”
The US could file for his extradition from the UK if he returns, something Emms expects to happen if he were to make it back to home soil. But, he said, the British government — including intelligence services — interviewed him extensively and told him they don’t think he’s done anything wrong.
This gave Emms confidence to travel to Saudi Arabia for the One Giant Leap conference, after which he was arrested.
Crispin Blunt, a long-serving member of UK parliament who has urged the nation’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Saudi ambassador to take action, echoed Stirling’s sentiment.
“Emms is a victim of an exercise in American extraterritoriality,” Blunt told Blockworks. “First of all, Chris hasn’t broken, as far as I’m aware, any British international or Saudi laws. The Americans are using the Red Notice system under Interpol improperly — jurisdiction shopping in order to make life as bloody as possible for people they identify as their opponents.”
“All of us would have some anxiety about someone idiotic enough to attend a conference in Pyongyang,” Blunt added. “However, on examination, it appears that Emms has been an idiot, not a crook. Being an idiot is not a crime.”