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Detroit-area men who sent millions to Yemen spared prison

DETROIT (AP) — A group of Detroit-area men opened bank accounts to move millions of dollars to Yemen, their war-torn native country. Their crime: They didn’t register as a money transfer business.

Their luck: They drew a sympathetic judge.

One by one, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn declined to send them to prison, despite guidelines that call for a few years or more behind bars. He noted that Yemen’s financial system is a mess and its residents desperately need help. Defense lawyers have praised the judge for educating himself about the poorest country in the Arab world and understanding cultural traditions.

“Only people without compassion” would object to the light sentences, the 95-year-old judge told The Associated Press.

“As I’ve been here longer,” Cohn said, “I’ve come to the realization that the rules are flexible — at least to me.”

The Detroit area is believed to have the highest U.S. population of Yemenis, a demographic that has risen amid war in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions more with food and health care shortages.

Money sent from abroad is critical. The World Bank estimates that Yemenis received at least $3.3 billion in 2018, a figure some experts consider conservative. Cash from expatriates is “hugely important” and remains a “mainstay for many households and the national economy,” said Sheila Carapico, a professor of global studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Since 2018, federal prosecutors in Detroit have charged nine people in an investigation of cash transfers to Yemen. Bank accounts were opened in the names of shell businesses, then used to deposit and wire roughly $90 million over a seven-year period, according to plea agreements filed in court.

“Much of the currency originated from bodegas in New York City and from businesses and individuals in the metro Detroit area and was sent in a manner to conceal the true ownership of the currency, place it outside reach of law enforcement and evade income taxes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Wyse said.

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