Binance exec struggles to cope as Nigerian money laundering trial resumes

Binance exec struggles to cope as Nigerian money laundering trial resumes
RegulationPeople & culture
Binance compliance executive Tigran Gambaryan has been detained in Nigeria since February 26. Credit: Darren Joseph
  • Defence lawyers grilled government officials in cross examination.
  • Binance compliance exec Tigran Gambaryan appears to still be ailing from malaria.
  • Trial is unfolding in fits and starts.

Battling coughing fits, a visibly ill Tigran Gambaryan looked on as his defence lawyers grilled government officials in two days of court proceedings in Nigeria’s Federal High Court in Abuja this week.

The Binance executive wore the same black T-shirt and rumpled grey trousers he’s worn in previous court appearances.

He looked exhausted and gaunt and regularly supported himself on the dock to avoid falling the way he did on his first trial day in May.

Money laundering case

Gambaryan, the US-based head of Binance’s financial crime compliance team, has been charged in a $35 million money laundering indictment filed by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, or EFCC.

He has pleaded not guilty and his lawyer has decried the case as “state-sponsored hostage taking.” In June, two US lawmakers called for his immediate release after finding him ailing with little care in prison.

Binance, too, has been charged with money laundering and it denies the allegations. The cases have sprung from a dispute between Binance, which is not licenced in Nigeria, and government officials.

As Gambaryan’s trial resumed on Monday, defence lawyers questioned the EFCC’s first witness, Abdulkadir Abbas, a director at Nigeria’s Securities and Exchange Commission, according to court proceedings monitored by DL News.

Babatunde Fagbohunlu, Binance’s lawyer, questioned Abbas about the regulatory framework for crypto companies such as Binance in Nigeria.

Join the community to get our latest stories and updates

Abbas testified that the absence of clear-cut crypto regulations by the SEC did not give Binance the right to operate in Nigeria without a licence.

Deflected questions

Abbas deflected questions from Binance’s lawyers about the company’s assertions that it tried to register with the SEC two years ago, to no avail.

The SEC director bristled when asked about his previous testimony that Binance manipulated Nigeria’s foreign exchange market via its peer-to-peer trading platform.

He declined to answer when asked to testify if the SEC had examined the impact of P2P trading on Binance on the naira’s value.

Gambaryan’s lawyer Mark Mordi focused his cross-examination on his client’s decision-making status at Binance.

Mordi pressed Abbas whether he knew Gambaryan was a cybercrime investigator and demanded yes or no answers.

Mordi then asked the witness if he understood that Gambaryan’s role focused on investigating transactions after completion and did not have a say in the company’s operations.

No decision-making power

The witness attempted to evade the question but was forced to answer in the affirmative on both occasions.

Binance and CEO Richard Teng have insisted that Gambaryan doesn’t have decision-making power about the company’s services, products, or markets.

Immense suffering

Despite claims by Nigeria’s government that Gambaryan was being treated fairly, his physical condition in court this week told a different story.

Even the presiding judge, Justice Emeka Nwite, was compelled to order the prosecution to release the results of Gambaryan’s medical test by Friday.

The Binance executive slumped in court on May 23 and his wife Yuki told DL News he was suffering from malaria and pneumonia.

He has also begun to complain of back pain and numbness in his foot which could explain his noticeable limp during court proceedings this week.

Justice Nwite previously directed his hospitalisation but Nigerian officials ignored the directive for almost two weeks.

“He is suffering immensely under the strain of this injustice,” Gambaryan’s wife Yuki said in a statement to DL News. “This situation has gone too far.”

Nigerian officials have rejected allegations they are neglecting Gambaryan.

Gambaryan’s family also continues to clamour for his release. Justice Nwite adjourned the trial until July 5.

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.