After 665 days of imprisonment in the Unites States, I, Mahmoud Reza Banki won my case on appeal and was released from prison in November 2011. I spent 11 months (out of the 22 months) in maximum and high security prisons. This is my story.
- I am an American who spent 22 months in prison even though I won on appeal and ultimately received no prison sentence.
- My story is not only a story about coming from Iran or the sanctions; it is one that sheds light on justice.
- Sharing my story might prevent this from happening again. It will also help me move onto the next phase of my life. It may also help raise awareness and push for change for the better for all of us.
Like many I left my family behind and moved to the United States for a better life. And for a while I had everything going for me, I completed my undergraduate studies at University of California at Berkeley, went on to Princeton for my PhD and a management consulting job at McKinsey & Company took me to New York City. My future, looked bright. That’s until, my world turned upside down on January 7th, 2010.
On January 7th, 2010, around 6:30am, a dozen agents stormed into my apartment, slammed me against the wall, handcuffed and took me away.
No questions. No explanations. I was arrested and later charged with a three-count indictment on an accusation of violating US-imposed sanctions on Iran. It sounds like the start of a movie or a bad dream but the following two years were as real to me as they are devastating and hence this was the start of my legal case where I spent 665 days imprisoned up until an appellate court overturned the sanctions convictions and released me from prison.
After my mother struggled to get a divorce, my family and I decided to send her assets from Iran to me in the U.S. This money came to me over a 3-year period and I voluntarily reported it in detail on my tax returns. I used the money to purchase a condominium in New York City to preserve the assets for my mother. In the language of the US Sanctions law against Iran, family money is clearly listed as an exemption from the sanctions laws (1). Despite this, prosecutors alleged that my conduct violated the US sanctions on Iran. I maintained my innocence and argued against these sanctions charges through almost two years of incarceration.
I was denied bail and held in maximum and high security detention centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn for the first 11 months until my case went through the justice system: a jury trial, sentencing and prison. After nearly a year in high-security detention, in December 2010, I was transferred to a minimum-security prison in California where I stayed until the Second Circuit Appellate Court in late October 2011 ruled in my favor, vacating the substantive charges and ordering my release. The appellate court decision ended 22 months of imprisonment; I had won on appeal (2) and was released only to realize getting my life back was a far bigger challenge.
Appellate court in
overturning the verdict:
“Banki’s conviction [on
the sanctions charges]
Key Factors on Appeal: In overturning the substantive convictions Second Circuit Appellate court underscored that I had not gotten a fair trial and ruled in my favor on these grounds:
- Family monies (remittances) are not prohibited
- Judge had not instructed jury on the family money exception in the law
- Judge had not instructed jury on elements of money transmittal
- Rule of lenity favors defendant.
An excerpt I wrote shortly
after release from prison:
“As an Iranian-American living in the U.S. with my close and extended family living in Iran and under the current negative climate towards Iran, I have had an unfair share of unnecessary scrutiny. I am lucky to have made it through in good health, have maintained my sanity and remain as ambitious as before. I do certainly appreciate life and opportunities more than ever; I am lucky to have had tremendous support in my circle and community – over 120 professionals and acquaintances wrote support letters to the court on my behalf including a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, distinguished professors, colleagues and others. I was fortunate to be represented by prominent attorneys who fought vigorously and believed in my innocence; one of whom is the former dean of Stanford Law School, Kathleen Sullivan. Kathleen has been considered on the short list for several prominent justice positions. She has been a passionate advocate for my innocence all along.
“[Letters sent to court on Reza’s behalf] painted for me a portrait of a loyal and loving son and brother, a devoted friend and honorable man, a kind man and fantastically hard working and talented man, even brilliant, who has much to contribute and much that is productive to contribute to his community and his world. I hope and expect, Mr. Banki, that while your conviction and your incarceration, as you point out, do pose daunting obstacles, you will use your formidable energy and talent productively and for the benefit of the common good as you move forward . . . the damage to Mr. Banki’s life brought about by his lengthy incarceration, occasioned by his confinement, cannot be measured only by the 22 months in which he lost his liberty and which he cannot get back.”
Judge Paul Engelmayer
United States District Judge
My dreams remain alive.
This is a point of departure for me. After hard-won successes and accomplishments I rode the rollercoaster of a shocking arrest and two-year imprisonment before winning on appeal. I am still recovering from the devastating blow of this ordeal to every aspect of my life. I appreciate what I do have and am a better person because of the twists and turns in my journey.
What does JUSTICE mean to you?
Beyond my own case, in a TED video, I talk about a number of areas in the criminal justice system where we as a nation, can do far better. These are far-reaching and apply to most criminal cases in this country.
Innocence: The notion of being innocent till proven guilty? I never felt that way. That’s not the experience of most defendants.
Excessive prosecution: and that prosecutors win 98% of criminal cases in this country because of the arsenal of tools they have at their disposal; they are only human. What if they make a mistake?
Exorbitant cost of defense: Federal criminal defense costs are enough to drive most people in this country into bankruptcy, on par with a catastrophic medical condition.
Prison: is it a deterrent given that we have more inmates than ever? Is it Rehab; as in do inmates leave prison in a better condition that when they got there? Or is it just punishment; and who else is getting punished? It costs twice as much annually to lock someone up than it does to send them to Harvard. At this cost, does prison serve its intended objectives?
Reintegration: Guilty or innocent, after doing their time what options do inmates have? Do we as a society really offer second chances? When does the punishment end?
What I took away?
I wish I could say there was an Aha! moment through this experience where it all fit together and made sense. But there are two key takeaways for me in this experience:
Appreciation of all the little things
Not having access to all that I took for granted before made me realize how I appreciate them: the freedom to go for a walk in the park or city, breathing fresh air, a clean shower, a decent meal, to not be surrounded by tension and violence, to be able to interact with ordinary people, to feel the sun on your skin; these all mean a lot more to me now.
Resilience of humans
Prior to this experience I would have never thought I could survive it. But human resilience is beyond imagination. And it is not about me at all. I saw this among all the inmates I saw in prison. With their backs to the wall, they each found a way to make it to the next day, one day at a time until all the days added up and they were free. We are all far stronger than we know ourselves.
1|ITR: Iranian Transaction Regulation overseen by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) within the Department of Treasury. US sanctions against Iran ban trading of any services, goods or financial transactions between the two countries with a few exemptions; one being family remittances. Therefore it is legal under US law to send and receive family money to and from Iran. Hence, his family sending money from Iran to the US to preserve our collective assets was at no point out of line with the law.
2|Banki was cleared of all the substantive charges brought against him and for which he was arrested. The Appellate Court overturned the three main convictions of 1. Violating the Iran sanctions, 2. Running an unlicensed banking business, and 3. Conspiracy to violate the Iran sanctions and to run an unlicensed money transmittal business; Banki has been cleared of all three of these charges. However, two false statement charges still remain on his record in which the court ruled that he had attributed the family money that came to him to a different family member in Iran.