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Ex-manager at indicted money exchange pleads guilty to U.S. charges

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former manager at indicted digital currency exchange Liberty Reserve pleaded guilty on Thursday in New York to federal charges of conspiracy and operating an unlicensed money transmitting business.

Azzedine El Amine, 47, a Costa Rica citizen, has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as they pursue charges against others who worked for the exchange, which the government has said helped criminals launder more than $6 billion in illicit funds.

At a hearing in Manhattan federal court, El Amine told U.S. District Judge Denise Cote he had helped process money transfers involving funds he knew to be from criminal activities, and that the transactions were intended to conceal customer identities.

“That’s how Liberty Reserve made a lot of money,” he said.

The plea comes 10 months after Vladimir Kats, the co-founder of Liberty Reserve, reached his own deal with prosecutors.

The case, which Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has said is perhaps “the largest international money laundering case ever brought by the United States,” includes five other individual defendants as well as Liberty Reserve itself.

Arthur Budovsky, the other co-founder, remains in Spain, where he is fighting extradition. Technology designer Mark Marmilev and Maxim Chukharev are scheduled to face trial next year, while two other employees, Ahmed Yassine Abdelghani and Allan Esteban Hidalgo Jimenez, are at large in Costa Rica.

Prosecutors have said Liberty Reserve had more than a million users worldwide, including at least 200,000 in the United States, when it was shuttered in May 2013. Virtually all of its business was related to suspected criminal activity, from child pornography to drug trafficking to computer hacking, according to authorities.

The use of digital currency has expanded rapidly in recent years, drawing the attention of U.S. regulators concerned about the potential for money laundering.

The top charge against El Amine carries a maximum 20-year prison term, although his sentence would likely take into account whether he provides substantial assistance to the government.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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