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Behind Binance Employee Arrest in Nigeria, Bribery Solicitation Claims| GuyWhoKnowsThings

On a trip to Nigeria in January, Tigran Gambaryan, chief compliance officer at the giant cryptocurrency exchange Binance, received a disturbing message: the company had 48 hours to make a payment of approximately $150 million in cryptocurrency.

Gambaryan, a former American law enforcement officer, understood the message as a request for a bribe from someone in the Nigerian government, according to five people familiar with the matter and the messages reviewed by The New York Times. He and a group of his Binance colleagues had just met with Nigerian lawmakers, who accused the company of tax violations and threatened to arrest its employees.

Binance officials fled Nigeria in panic. Later that month, Gambaryan wrote a three-page report outlining the payment request and gave it to Binance lawyers, two people familiar with the report said. He also alerted his contacts in the Nigerian government, the people said, and told them about the incident.

The episode was the backdrop for a second trip to Nigeria that Gambaryan took in February. Upon his return, he and his colleague, Nadeem Anjarwalla, were arrested by Nigerian authorities, triggering a crisis at Binance.

Mr. Gambaryan has been detained in Kuje prison in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, for the past four weeks, after he was transferred there from a government compound on April 8. His case is the latest legal headache for Binance, which agreed to a $4.3 billion fine last year to resolve accusations by the US government that it had allowed criminal activity to flourish on its platform. In April, the company's founder, Changpeng Zhao, was sentenced to four months in prison for his role in those violations.

Nigerian authorities have accused both Binance and Gambaryan of tax evasion and money laundering. Binance has denied that Mr. Gambaryan had some “decision-making power” in the company.

“The message from the Nigerian government is clear,” Binance CEO Richard Teng wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “We must arrest an innocent mid-level employee and former US federal agent and place him in a dangerous prison so we can control Binance.”

Zakari Mijinyawa, spokesman for Nigeria's national security adviser, said in a statement that the Nigerian government would present its case “based on the facts and evidence, in accordance with due process.”

“We are confident that Nigeria has a good case,” Mijinyawa said. “Binance will still have every opportunity under the rule of law to present her case and see justice done.”

In the blog post, Teng laid out the story of Binance's commitment to Nigeria, which has become a hot spot for the cryptocurrency industry. have the second highest rate of cryptocurrency adoption in the world behind India, according to Chainalysis, a data company.

In 2023, Nigerian financial regulators issued a statement ordering Binance to stop soliciting investors in Nigeria. Binance stopped advertising for him in the country and offered to meet with government officials, Teng said.

But tensions continued to rise. In recent months, Nigerian officials have argued that trading on Binance contributed to the collapse of the country's currency, the naira. And in December, a committee of the Nigerian House of Representatives asked that Binance representatives appear at a hearing.

On January 8, Gambaryan and a group of Binance employees met with those lawmakers. The meeting soon became contentious: Lawmakers read aloud a list of accusations against Binance, including tax violations. They also threatened to seek an arrest warrant for Mr. Teng, according to the blog post.

When Binance employees left the meeting, Teng wrote, “unknown people” approached them and suggested they make a payment to resolve the allegations. Later, a local lawyer representing Binance spoke with someone purporting to be a House committee agent, Teng wrote.

The alleged agent demanded “a significant payment in cryptocurrency to be paid secretly within 48 hours to make these issues go away,” Teng wrote. The amount was about $150 million, four people familiar with the matter said.

“Our team became increasingly concerned for their safety in Nigeria and left immediately,” Teng wrote in his post. “Of course, we rejected the demand for payment through our lawyer, not considering it a legitimate settlement offer.”

After leaving Nigeria in January, Gambaryan discussed the incident with colleagues and circulated his report outlining the payment request, two people familiar with the matter said.

Later that month, Gambaryan began scheduling meetings with Nigerian security and financial crimes officials. At the time, she noted that senior leaders in the financial crimes bureau were eager to discuss what had happened during the Jan. 8 meeting, a person familiar with the conversations said.

In a text message last month, Dele Oyewale, spokesperson for Nigeria's financial crimes commission, declined to comment on the payment request. He did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

In his post on Tuesday, Teng wrote that Binance had received assurances that Gambaryan would be safe if he returned to Nigeria. A company adviser with deep local connections recommended that Binance officials meet with the office of Nigeria's national security adviser, Teng wrote.

Gambaryan and Anjarwalla arrived at that meeting on February 26. After a couple of hours of discussion, Teng wrote, a Nigerian financial crimes official took Gambaryan aside and told him “everything was progressing well.”

Different Nigerian officials then entered the room and demanded that Binance provide detailed information about its users in Nigeria, a request that the company was unwilling to fulfill. The passports of Messrs. Gambaryan and Anjarwalla were confiscated and the two men were held for three weeks in a secure facility. On March 22, his attorneys received word that criminal charges would be filed.

Anjarwalla escaped the next day. He left Nigeria and has not spoken publicly since.

Mr. Gambaryan was alone in the compound. Shortly after his arrival, financial crimes officials in Nigeria sent a note to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, according to a copy of the message seen by The Times.

“It is important to emphasize that Mr. Tigran is currently holding a conversation with our team and the intention of his stay is purely for the purpose of engaging in constructive dialogue,” the letter said. “We assure them that the individual participates willingly.”

Gambaryan was soon transferred to Kuje, a notorious facility where the Islamic State staged a 2022 prison break.

The trial was scheduled to begin last Thursday, but the court postponed it until May 17.

Julian E. Barnes and Glenn Thrush contributed reporting from Washington and Sunday Isuwa from Abuja, Nigeria.

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