New York Times: An Iranian immigrant who had earned a Ph.D. from Princeton and aspired to a career in biotechnology was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on Monday for violating the Iran trade embargo by using an informal money-transfer system known as hawala to move millions of dollars between the United States and Iran.
The New York Times
By BENJAMIN WEISER
An Iranian immigrant who had earned a Ph.D. from Princeton and aspired to a career in biotechnology was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on Monday for violating the Iran trade embargo by using an informal money-transfer system known as hawala to move millions of dollars between the United States and Iran.
The defendant, Mahmoud Reza Banki, 34, must also pay the government about $3.3 million, which prosecutors say was the amount of money involved in the illegal transactions.
“I stand before you today, older, wiser, but also more distraught than ever before,” Mr. Banki told a judge before his sentencing in a Manhattan courtroom that was packed with family members and other supporters. “I deeply regret everything that has happened,” he said.
Mr. Banki’s lawyers had asked the judge, John F. Keenan of Federal District Court, to sentence him to time served, arguing that Mr. Banki, who has been jailed since his arrest in January, had already endured “a massive and life-altering penalty” and that the public would be better served by contributions he could make outside of prison.
The lawyers, Baruch Weiss and Tai H. Park, also argued in court papers that the hawala system, which operates outside of normal banking channels, was widely used by Iranians in the United States to move family money, and that Mr. Banki could not have anticipated that such conduct would condemn him to a lengthy sentence. Mr. Weiss said his client would appeal.
The office of United States Attorney Preet Bharara had charged that Mr. Banki played a critical role in a hawala in which he obtained more than $3 million from members of his family in Iran, and used his bank account in New York to help dozens of other people and companies around the world send an equivalent amount of money to Iran.
The judge rejected arguments by Mr. Banki’s lawyers that their client’s role had been minor.
“Without Mr. Banki’s participation in the hawala here,” Judge Keenan said, “the hawala could not have operated. He was a player — in a sense, a key player.”
The judge said that Mr. Banki had not provided support to terrorism or the Iranian government. He said Mr. Banki, a naturalized American citizen who once worked at McKinsey & Company, appeared highly intelligent and highly respected by his peers.
“There is little likelihood that Mr. Banki will revert to future criminal behavior,” the judge said. “He won’t benefit very much from a long period of imprisonment.”
Mr. Banki was convicted in June of conspiracy, violating the trade embargo, operating an unlicensed money-transmittal business and making false statements about the transfers. A prosecutor, E. Danya Perry, told the judge that the false statements had been “egregious” conduct.
“It was repeated, it was calculated, it was considered,” she said.
Ms. Perry and another prosecutor, Anirudh Bansal, said in court papers that a sentence of at least six and a half years was recommended under advisory sentencing guidelines, but that Mr. Banki’s case might be “one of those rare cases” in which a lower sentence was appropriate.
Still, they said, the seriousness of his crimes and the need for general deterrence required “a substantial sentence.”
Judge Keenan said he had received more than 100 letters on behalf of Mr. Banki, including one from Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who said she had known his family for decades.
The sanctions on Iran, she wrote, had “closed all traditional ways” for parents in Iran to send money to their children abroad, leading parents to resort to “less traditional methods of sending money, which then may lead to innocent mistakes that have tragic consequences.”
Mr. Banki, in his statement to the judge, said he was “battered but still motivated and dedicated to doing all that is right and good.” He seemed devastated after the sentence was announced, sitting and shaking his head.
As the hearing ended, he turned to the spectators. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Thank you all for coming. I’m sorry,” he repeated, and he was led from court.