CEO of South Africa’s biggest cryptocurrency scam faces extradition from Brazil — here are the charges

South Africa has asked the Brazilian government to extradite former Mirror Trading International CEO Johann Steynberg for various financial crimes, according to a court order published on Monday.

Steynberg had applied to the court to be released from precautionary custody, arguing that he was not a flight risk.

According to the order, Steynberg said he had been held for over 60 days, was not being investigated for violent or other serious crimes, and had started a family in Brazil.

Steynberg left a wife and child behind in Polokwane when he disappeared in December 2020.

He also argued that there wasn’t sufficient justification to show that his case meets the requirements for extradition.

Brazilian supreme court justice André Mendonça was unmoved by Steynberg’s request and ordered that he remain under precautionary arrest pending his extradition hearing.

Mirror Trading International (MTI) was a bitcoin-based network marketing scam that imploded in 2020 when Steynberg vanished while travelling in Brazil.

A group calling itself Anonymous ZA had exploited vulnerabilities in MTI’s poorly-coded website and exposed the inner workings of the scheme in September 2020.

After the scheme failed, Chainalysis named MTI the biggest cryptocurrency scam of 2020.

A source with knowledge of the case told MyBroadband that investigators estimate more than 46,000 bitcoin (over R22 billion) flowed through the scheme.

MTI’s liquidators asserted that there were supposed to be 22,222.548 bitcoin in the company’s accounts — around R10.8 billion at R487,000 per bitcoin.

Law enforcement arrested Steynberg on 29 December 2021 during a joint operation between the Brazilian Federal Police and Interpol.

He allegedly presented a fake ID when officers approached him in the city of Goiânia, the capital of the Brazilian state of Goiás.

The Brazilian court order has clarified that the South African government had obtained an Interpol Red Diffusion (A–488/1–2022) on Steynberg, resulting in him being identified.

Red Diffusions are distinct from Red Notices, in that they are less formal and are circulated directly by Interpol National Central Bureaus.

Mendonça stated that South Africa’s request to Interpol includes the following charges:

  • Conducting financial services without a licence
  • Conducting a derivatives business unlicensed
  • Trading in financial products without a license
  • Fraud
  • Theft
  • Money laundering
André Mendonça, Brazilian Justice of the Supreme Federal Court (left) —with Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil (right)

Steynberg’s appeal for release on the grounds that he has started a family in Brazil is reminiscent of famous train robber Ronald Biggs.

The United Kingdom failed to extradite Biggs from Brazil in 1974 because his girlfriend was pregnant with their son.

At the time, Brazilian law did not allow a parent of a Brazilian child to be extradited.

When Steynberg was arrested, it emerged that he had been providing a luxurious lifestyle for his new Brazilian girlfriend. It is not clear whether she is pregnant.

Regardless, Mendonça ruled that taking up residence and starting a family in Brazil does not prevent precautionary arrest, nor does it protect Steynberg from extradition anymore.

He noted that Steynberg is under arrest in South Africa and emphasised that he was jailed in Brazil for allegedly using false documents.

“[That] he chose to leave South Africa and the fact that he was caught in Brazil with false documents… suggest the intention to evade possible criminal liability and contraindicate house arrest,” stated Mendonça.

“As for the excess period of imprisonment without the extradition request having been made, I note that South Africa has already formalised the claim, and there is already an extradition process in progress.”

Mendonça said South Africa’s embassy was informed of the arrest on 18 February, and it submitted a verbal note formalising the extradition request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 14 April.

“Therefore, the deadline has not been exceeded,” he ruled, adding that there is also legal precedent allowing extended detainment in extradition proceedings.

Based on these findings, Mendonça ordered Steynberg be remanded to custody.

Steynberg could not be reached for comment.

Now read: “Masterminds” of South Africa’s biggest Bitcoin scam summonsed — on the hook for R4.7 billion

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CEO of South Africa’s biggest cryptocurrency scam faces extradition from Brazil — here are the charges