An Ethereum research scientist was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport Friday on allegations that he breached U.S. sanctions by attending a conference in North Korea and discussing blockchain technology.

Virgil Griffith, 36, a resident of Singapore but a U.S. citizen, stands accused of speaking at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in April. He’s alleged by the Department of Justice to have discussed blockchain as a sanction-breaking tool in breach of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

The act, passed in 1977, is a U.S. federal law that authorizes the president to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to any unusual and extraordinary threat. Executive Order 13466 issued in 2008 pertains to North Korea and covers various forms of commerce involving North Korea and its nationals.

“Virgil Griffith provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement. “In allegedly doing so, Griffith jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea’s dangerous regime.”

The Justice Department also claims that in his talk at the conference, Griffith, among other things, discussed how to streamline Ethereum exchanges between North and South Korea in violation of trade sanctions.

Griffith is also alleged to have been warned not to travel to North Korea after having sought approval to attend the conference, which was then denied, according to Coindesk. Since Griffith was providing a service in the country by presenting at the conference, he is said to have needed official approval to do so because of the trade sanctions.

The arrest has not been without controversy, with claims that Griffith’s presentation at the conference provided no knowledge that wasn’t already publicly available on the internet.

The Ethereum Foundation has attempted to distance itself from Griffith. “The Foundation is aware of the recent charges filed against Virgil Griffith,” the foundation said in a statement reported by Vice. “We can confirm that the Foundation was not represented in any capacity at the events outlined in the Justice Department’s filing and that the Foundation neither approved nor supported any such travel, which was a personal matter. We are continuing to monitor the situation as it develops.”

If found guilty of breaching the IEEPA, Griffith could face up to 20 years in jail.

Photo: fljckr/Flickr

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