Binance exec Tigran Gambaryan is a ‘state-sanctioned hostage’ in Nigeria, says lawyer

Binance exec Tigran Gambaryan is a ‘state-sanctioned hostage’ in Nigeria, says lawyer
RegulationPeople & culture
Binance executive Tigran Gambaryan has been detained in Nigeria since late February. Credit: Andrés Tapia
  • Nigerian court delays bail ruling for Gambaryan until next month.
  • Lawyers dueled in court over whether Binance executive is a flight risk or a pawn.
  • Latest hearing intensifies crisis for crypto exchange.

Seventy-nine days.

That is how long Tigran Gambaryan will have been incarcerated in a Nigerian government safe house and prison by the time he learns whether a judge will grant him bail.

And there is no guarantee that a Nigerian court will follow through with a ruling when the hearing comes on May 17. Over the last few weeks, the Binance executive has been brought to court several times, only to have his bail hearing postponed.

Prosecutors say the numerous delays were the result of unfortunate procedural errors.

But Mark Mordi, Gambaryan’s lawyer and a senior advocate of Nigeria, provided another explanation.

“This is purely state-sanctioned hostage-taking,” Mordi said in court proceedings Tuesday monitored by DL News.

Nightmare

Gambaryan, a US-based financial compliance executive, has found himself ensnared in a legal nightmare from shortly after he landed in Abuja in late February.

He and a colleague, Nadeem Anjarwalla, arrived to address allegations Binance was facilitating manipulation of Nigeria’s currency and illicit financial transactions. When talks broke down, the two men were detained.

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Both men have been charged with money laundering and tax evasion.

So, too, has their employer, Binance, the world’s biggest crypto exchange and the target of a wide-ranging investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the country’s anti-corruption agency.

Anjarwalla, a British lawyer and Binance’s regional manager in Kenya, managed to elude his guards and escape Nigeria with a second passport he had not surrendered.

Flight risk

In Tuesday’s bail hearing, Ekele Iheanacho, the EFCC’s lawyer, said Gambaryan was a flight risk who would also flee the country if granted bail.

Iheanacho said Gambaryan already attempted to procure another US passport from the US Embassy in Nigeria on the pretext that his former passport, currently in the state’s custody, was stolen.

“If operatives of the Commission [the EFCC] had not intercepted him, that act would have been completed,” Iheanacho said.

The EFCC’s counsel accused Gambaryan of attempting to escape at the same time as Anjarwalla.

“The experience we had with the man [Anjarwalla] who escaped to Kenya while his United Kingdom passport is in Nigeria will certainly repeat itself if this defendant is granted bail,” Iheanacho told the court.

But Mordi countered that the EFCC was using his client as leverage against his employer, which may have to pay a penalty to settle the charges.

Prison cell

In November, Binance agreed to pay a $4.3 billion penalty to the US government after it pleaded guilty to violating banking laws by failing to prevent sanctioned entities such as terrorist groups from using its platform.

Gambaryan, the head of Binance’s financial crimes compliance unit and a former special agent with the Internal Revenue Service, will spend the next month incarcerated in Kuje Prison near the capital of Abuja.

The EFCC filed a $35 million money-laundering indictment against Gambaryan and Binance on March 22.

Nigeria’s government blamed Binance for the devaluation of its fiat currency, the naira.

Gambaryan pleaded not guilty to the charges earlier this month, but Binance has yet to retain any legal representation thus far in the proceedings.

A bitter legal dispute between Binance and Nigerian officials preceded Gambaryan’s and Anjarwalla’s arrival in the nation.

Nigeria’s government blamed Binance for the devaluation of its fiat currency, the naira. Binance denied the allegations.

Deeply disappointed

Binance has decried the allegations against its two executives and the court’s decision to imprison Gambaryan in a facility that also holds terrorists.

“We are deeply disappointed that Tigran Gambaryan, who has no decision-making power in the company, continues to be detained,” a company spokesperson told DL News recently.

“It’s outrageous that he would be remanded in a prison such as Kuje Correctional Facility.”

Osato Avan-Nomayo is our Nigeria-based DeFi correspondent. He covers DeFi and tech. To share tips or information about stories, please contact him at osato@dlnews.com.