By Jody Godoy
(Reuters) – A former researcher at a high-profile cryptocurrency group was sentenced to five years and three months in prison on Tuesday for conspiring to help North Korea evade U.S. sanctions using cryptocurrency, federal prosecutors in Manhattan said.
Virgil Griffith was arrested in 2019 and pleaded guilty last September to conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act by traveling to North Korea to present on blockchain technology.
Griffith formerly worked for the Ethereum Foundation, a non-profit that works to support the technology behind the cryptocurrency ether.
The sentence, imposed by U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel, was the minimum amount of prison time prosecutors had sought. Griffith had asked for a sentence of two years. Castel also fined Griffith $100,000, below the $1 million prosecutors suggested.
Griffith’s attorney Brian Klein said in a statement that while the sentence was disappointing, the judge “acknowledged Virgil’s commitment to moving forward with his life productively, and that he is a talented person who has a lot to contribute.”
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement on Tuesday that “justice has been served.”
Griffith, who has a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, traveled to North Korea via China in April 2019 to deliver a presentation at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, despite being denied permission by the U.S. Department of State to go, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors said Griffith understood the information could be used to evade sanctions the U.S. had imposed on North Korea over its development of nuclear weapons technology.
“The most important feature of blockchains is that they are open. And the DPRK can’t be kept out no matter what the USA or the UN says,” Griffith said during the presentation, according to prosecutors, using the initials of North Korea’s official name.
The Ethereum Foundation said at the time of Griffith’s arrest that it had not approved or supported his travel to North Korea.
(Reporting by Jody Godoy; editing by Richard Pullin)