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Binance founder Changpeng Zhao ordered by judge to stay in U.S. ahead of prison sentencing

Changpeng Zhao, founder and CEO of Binance, attends the Viva Technology conference dedicated to innovation and startups at Porte de Versailles exhibition center in Paris on June 16, 2022.

Benoit Tessier | Reuters

Binance founder Changpeng Zhao, who pleaded guilty last week to criminal charges tied to his cryptocurrency exchange, has to remain in the U.S. at least temporarily, according to a ruling Monday by a federal judge.

Zhao was released on a $175 million bond last week and has a sentencing hearing scheduled for Feb. 23. Prosecutors requested that Zhao be barred from leaving the country before his sentencing, while his lawyers have asked that their client be able to travel, noting in a briefing that he “voluntarily flew” to the U.S. for his guilty plea. 

Zhao lives in the United Arab Emirates, which doesn’t have a formal extradition treaty with the U.S. Richard Jones, a U.S. District Court Judge in Seattle, said Zhao cannot return to the UAE “until such time as this Court resolves the Government’s motion for review.”

“In the vast majority of cases, a multi-billionaire defendant who has pleaded guilty, faces possible prison time, and lives in a country that does not extradite its citizens to the United States would be detained,” the government wrote in a filing to the court.

Prosecutors said they’d already made an “exceptional recommendation” in suggesting that Zhao be allowed to remain free until his sentencing. They said Zhao presents a flight risk, but one that “could be managed by requiring him to remain in the U.S. and preventing him from returning to the safe haven of the UAE.”

Zhao agreed to step down as CEO of Binance as part of a $4.3 billion settlement with the Department of Justice. The plea arrangement resolves a multiyear investigation into the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange.

Zhao and others were charged with violating the Bank Secrecy Act by failing to implement an effective anti-money laundering program and for willfully violating U.S. economic sanctions “in a deliberate and calculated effort to profit from the U.S. market without implementing controls required by U.S. law,” according to the Justice Department.

Binance will continue to operate but with new ground rules. The company will be required to maintain and enhance its compliance program to ensure its business is in line with U.S. anti-money laundering standards. Binance must also appoint an independent compliance monitor.

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