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How an Iranian migrant’s American dream became a judicial nightmare

Mahmoud Reza Banki, an Iranian American, spent 22 months in jail before his conviction was overturned
Mahmoud Reza Banki says the US justice system puts innocent people behind bars

NEW YORK - Mahmoud Reza Banki thought he was living the American dream.

The Iranian-born chemist gained US citizenship in 1996, attended an Ivy League college and worked for a top management firm. Splashing out $2.4mn on a Manhattan apartment with money from his relatives in Iran seemed like a logical next step.

Think again. Moving money from Iran to the US is notoriously awkward. The transactions alerted US investigators and Banki was arrested, denied bail, prosecuted and jailed. He was behind bars, fighting the charges for 22 months before his conviction was overturned.

This week, the 39-year-old spoke with Middle East Eye about his campaign against what he sees as a skewed justice system.

“We believe in being innocent until proven guilty – but I don’t think I ever got that chance,” he told MEE.

“At 6:30 am on a January morning, a dozen agents stormed my apartment, slammed me against the wall, handcuffed me, in my underwear, and took me away. Within half an hour, I was in detention and a press release went out about an Iranian American who had been arrested on violating sanctions. By the end of that day I was in maximum security isolation.

“The prosecution had already set the stage for me to come across as extremely guilty; I then had to prove myself innocent.”

Prosecutors accused Banki of violating America’s trade embargo against Iran, which was initiated in 1995 after decades of enmity between the two nations and prohibits US citizens from supplying goods, services or technology to Iran or its government.

Jurors took only a few hours to convict him of violating the embargo and operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business, known in the Middle East as “hawala,” in June 2010. He was also convicted of making false statements.

“It was the worst day of my life when I got that guilty verdict; it felt as if my world had ended. I knew that no matter what, my life would just never be the same again. I’ve never been closer to suicide than on that day.

“It boggled my mind and I kept thinking to myself: what does it take to win?”

US District Judge John Keenan handed down a two-and-a-half year jail sentence. He called Banki a “highly educated young man” and remarked on a letter by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer, in support of him.

The sentence was lower than the 25 years behind bars that Banki had faced. Judge Keenan acknowledged that he was not a threat to national security and “did not support terrorism or the Iranian government”.

Banki fought the conviction from his cell until an appeals court overturned the main charges against him in 2012. It ruled that Banki had not broken US sanctions rules because the law clearly states that family remittances are exempt.

The court upheld two false-statement charges against him.

MEE contacted the office behind Banki’s prosecution, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, to request an interview about the case. Spokesman Christian Saint-Vil declined to comment.

According to Banki, he was caught in a trap of moving money from Iran to the US. Iranian Americans are often snared when settling the estates of deceased parents in Iran, and students at US colleges have a hard time getting money from back home to pay tuition fees.

Without regular banks, they often turn to hawala, the Middle East’s traditional and honour-based banking network. Transactions are usually above board, but the system is sometimes prey to money-launderers and funders of terrorism.

“You will be hard-pressed to find an Iranian American who has gotten money from Iran to the US in any other way,” Banki told MEE.

According to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a lobby group, tough US banking rules are a keystone issue for the estimated million Iranian Americans.

Its survey of 400 Iranian Americans in May found that 77 percent supported the “establishment of a direct banking link between the US and Iran to facilitate the transparent transfer of family remittances”.

“There is no banking channel, so they have to bypass that market,” Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told MEE.

“Any money that comes from Iran is scrutinised. People have even gone to jail for arranging for their inheritance to come through to them.”

The survey also found that two-thirds of Iranian Americans support the deal between the US, Iran and five other world powers that would place new curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the loosening of sanctions.

But for Banki, the real issue is how hot-headed prosecutors in a lop-sided justice system put innocents behind bars.

In a talk at a TED conference, which has yet to be released in its entirety, Banki rails against a judicial slip-up that ended the promising career of a Princeton University graduate with a job at the top consulting firm, McKinsey & Co.

“A government and prosecution mistake like this completely derailed my life’s trajectory. I’m still scrambling to figure out how to piece it together,” he told MEE.

“Why do American citizens have to live with this fear of unjust prosecution?”

America’s incarceration statistics are well known. It has five percent of the world’s population, but a quarter of its prisoners – more per capita than any developed nation. It is loaded against black men, a third of whom can expect to spend time inside, and costs about $80bn each year.

Banki’s sentiments echo those of left-leaning politicians. In July, US President Barack Obama called for cross-party efforts to fix a “broken system” of criminal justice. It is on the agenda of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both Democrat candidates in the 2016 White House race.

But even if reform efforts succeed, they will come too late for Banki. The chemical engineering graduate’s career in advising Fortune 500 companies about drugs markets and medical devices came crashing to an end when he was arrested.

When MEE spoke with Banki, he was job-hunting in Istanbul, Turkey, while hitting up contacts in Germany, Britain and the United Arab Emirates in a bid to land his first regular work since the dawn raid of January 2010.

“Interviews start great. They love my UC Berkeley education, my Princeton PhD, my McKinsey experience. But when they find out the reason for the gap in my CV, they get uncomfortable,” he said.

“I got out of prison. I won. Now, how do I get my life back?”

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