NEW YORK — A cryptocurrency expert charged with violating economic sanctions against North Korea has been released on $1 million bond despite federal prosecutors’ concerns he might flee the United States before trial.
Virgil Griffith was placed on house arrest with electronic monitoring at his parents’ home outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
His release came two days after a grand jury in New York indicted him on charges he violated sanctions by presenting at a cryptocurrency conference in North Korea after the U.S. government denied his request to travel to Pyongyang.
Griffith’s defense attorney, Brian Klein, told The Associated Press on Friday that Griffith “should not have been indicted.”
“We are going to vigorously contest the charge,” Klein wrote in an email, “and look forward to getting all the facts in front of the jury at trial.”
Griffith’s release followed a hearing last month in which prosecutors said Griffith had a “strong incentive” to flee the country. They estimated Griffith faces nearly two years behind bars if convicted and told U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick their investigation is continuing.
“We are extracting information from (Griffith’s) phones, etc., that will possibly lead to further charges,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Krouse said.
Griffith, 36, is known for creating WikiScanner, a tool that aimed to unmask people who anonymously edited entries in Wikipedia, the crowdsourced online encyclopedia. He is an American citizen but lives in Singapore. He was arrested in November at Los Angeles International Airport.
Klein said Griffith cooperated with the FBI during its investigation. He added that Griffith, a well-known hacker, also “helped educate law enforcement” about the so-called dark web, a network of encrypted Internet sites that allow users to remain anonymous.
Prosecutors have said Griffith secured a visa through “a (North Korean) diplomatic mission facility” in Manhattan and then traveled to the country through China.
At the April conference, Griffith talked about how North Korea could use cryptocurrency to “achieve independence from the global banking system,” according to a criminal complaint. The conference was attended by 100 people, including several who appeared to work for the North Korean government.
“The reason why these sanctions are in place on North Korea is exactly to prevent them from gaining access to those resources and this information,” Krouse said at Griffith’s bail hearing. “Mr. Griffith knew that in advance, was told that he was not permitted to travel to North Korea and did so anyway.”
The U.S. and the U.N. Security Council have imposed increasingly tight sanctions on North Korea in recent years to try to rein in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The U.S. government amended sanctions in 2018 to prohibit “a U.S. person, wherever located” from exporting technology to North Korea.
Broderick, the Manhattan-based federal judge, lectured Griffith about the seriousness of charges before releasing him on bond.
“Laws in this country are not suggestions,” the judge said. “I’ve never been in North Korea, but what I know about North Korea is one thing … you wouldn’t be having a bond hearing. That wouldn’t happen.”