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NY man given light sentence for Iranian money laundering scheme

A businessman from Queens, NY, was given a relatively light 10-month prison sentence on June 3 for a variety of charges stemming from a money exchange program that ran funds through Iran.

Reza Safarha, according to the FBI, was found guilty in February of illegally transmitting about $300,000 through an informal money exchange and brokering program called “hawala” that operates in the Middle East. The money, said the FBI and New York prosecutors, came from what Safarah believed was the sale of stolen property.

According to reports, Safarha, a rug store owner, transferred the money for a person who, unbeknownst to Safarha, was a government informant. Although he faced a potential sentence of eight years under the charges, presiding Federal District Judge Richard Sullivan noted Safarha had no record as a terrorist and was struggling to support his family since immigrating to the US after the Shah or Iran fell in 1979.

Between 2007 and 2008, Safarha, 56 who holds US and Iranian citizenships, provided money transmission services to Iran through the “hawala” system, according to the FBI. The US imposed a trade embargo on Iran in 1995 that prohibits U.S. citizens from supplying goods, services, or technology to Iran or the government of Iran. Money transmitting services are included in the embargo.

Typically, said the FBI, under “hawala,” funds physically don’t cross international boundaries through the banking system, but are transferred by customers to a hawala operator or “hawaldar.” The hawaladar holds the money and corresponding funds are distributed to recipients in another country by another hawaladar. The US government suspects that similar hawala operations help fund terrorist activities, including the 9/11 attacks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Joint Terrorism Task Force conducted the investigation into Safarha’s actions.

Safarha used the hawala network to send wire transfers totaling approximately $300,000 to and from individuals in Iran, the US and other places, according to the FBI. The money laundering conviction arose from Safarha’s belief that some of the money he was transferring to Iran using the hawala system was the proceeds of the sale of stolen computers and other electronics. The money was the property of the U.S. government, supplied through an informant. The FBI said Safarha stole at least $10,000 and didn’t transfer it to Iran.

In addition to the prison term, Safarha was also sentenced to two years’ supervised release and imposed a $500 special assessment. The judge in the case said Safarha had to forfeit $300,000, but will pay only $56,845.89 before September, 2011.

“This office takes violations of the United States’ trade embargo with Iran very seriously. Reza Safarha employed a form of financial legerdemain to circumvent the embargo, and added insult to injury by doing this to conceal what he believed were the proceeds from the sale of stolen property,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement on June 3.


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