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FG Insists Binance Executive Complicit as 16 US Lawmakers Accuse Nigeria of Taking Him Hostage - THISDAY

JUNE 06, 2024

•Congressmen write Biden, want urgent action

BY  Emmanuel Addeh in Abuja

The federal government yesterday maintained that a Binance Holdings Limited executive, Tigran Gambaryan, had a case to answer after US lawmakers accused Nigeria of taking him “hostage” and urged President Joe Biden to help secure his release.

Sixteen Republican congressmen, including Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul, wrote to Biden to have the case of Gambaryan referred to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Bloomberg reported.

A US citizen, Gambaryan is head of financial crime compliance at Binance and has been held at a prison in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, since April.

“The charges against Mr. Gambaryan are baseless and constitute a coercion tactic by the Nigerian government to extort his employer, Binance,” the lawmakers wrote in the June 4 letter, a copy of which was seen by Bloomberg. “Following these charges, Mr. Gambaryan qualifies as a ‘U.S. Citizen wrongfully detained by a foreign government,’” they said.

The faceoff between Africa’s most populous country and the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange burst into view in February, when Nigerian authorities detained Gambaryan and a colleague – who subsequently escaped – during a visit to discuss the company’s compliance issues with the country.

“After two rounds of meetings, which were described as starting professional and then becoming increasingly hostile, the government of Nigeria took Mr. Gambaryan hostage,” the lawmakers wrote.

But the Nigerian information minister, Mohammed Idris, rejected the allegation that the Binance executive had been wrongfully detained.

“Nobody is being kept outside our laws and nobody’s life is in danger,” Idris said in a telephone interview with the news medium. “They have committed a crime,” the minister added.

Gambaryan was initially held at a guesthouse before formal charges were brought against him and Binance in an Abuja court in April. He is accused alongside the company of charges, including non-payment of value-added tax and corporate income tax, and complicity in aiding customers to evade taxes through its platform.

He is being held in the Kuje correctional centre, a high-security prison in Abuja. The lawmakers said his wellbeing was of grave concern.

He last appeared in court on May 23, but the hearing was adjourned until June 20 after his lawyer said he was too ill to proceed.

“Mr. Gambaryan’s health and wellbeing are in danger, and we fear for his life. Immediate action is essential to ensure his safety and preserve his life,” the lawmakers said.

The letter was also addressed to US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and Roger Carstens, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

However, Nigeria’s information minister rejected this claim.

“We’re a responsible country and we have to ensure that everybody that is being investigated or is being tried under our laws is healthy enough to answer our questions,” Idris said.

Binance’s problems in the West African nation had already been simmering for months prior to the detention, after authorities blocked access to cryptocurrency channels amid a clampdown on speculation against the naira.

Officials said the platforms, which were very popular with Nigerians, had contributed to the local currency’s 68 per cent fall against the dollar since foreign exchange rules were eased last year.

Nigerian Central Bank Governor, Olayemi Cardoso, named the company during a February 27 press conference after announcing a jumbo interest rate hike to defend the naira.

Decrying “illicit flows,” Cardoso said $26 billion had passed through Binance in Nigeria “from sources and users who we cannot adequately identify.”

The Nigerian case is the firm’s latest legal problem. Its founder Changpeng Zhao was ordered on April 30 to spend four months in prison in the US for failures that allowed cybercriminals and terrorist groups to freely trade on its platform. Binance in November agreed to pay $4.3 billion to resolve the US allegations.


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