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Ex-UM professor charged with shipping genetic equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions

Miami International Airport (Adam Moss/Flickr)
September 19, 2021

Since early this year, federal investigators have been building a case against a former University of Miami assistant professor suspected of doing business with Iran and violating U.S. sanctions against the Persian Gulf country.

Scientist Mohammad Faghihi almost slipped away at Miami International Airport, authorities say.

“He was literally about to board a plane on Monday when he was arrested,” federal prosecutor Michael Thakur said Wednesday at a court hearing, seeking Faghihi’s detention on the basis of being a flight risk to his home country, Iran.

Faghihi, 52, was arrested on conspiracy and related charges stemming from allegations that he shipped genetic sequencing equipment to the Iranian military without a required license from the U.S. Department of Treasury. Faghihi was in contact with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, which bought several genetic testing machines from his local business, Thakur said.

Faghihi’s defense attorney tried to downplay any illicit connection, saying the former UM medical school professor who lived in Pinecrest was a world-renowned scientist trying to help save humanity, not fuel a conflict with the United States.

“These are not biological weapons — this is not biological warfare,” lawyer Saam Zangeneh told a federal magistrate judge. “I understand Iran is on the axis of evil … but I think we’re looking at this in a vacuum.”

The judge, Jonathan Goodman, ordered Faghihi’s detention before trial. The judge said “he was surely aware of the need” for a Treasury Department license to ship the genetic sequencing equipment to Iran, had “multiple connections” to people in that country, and was personally communicating with someone in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Both Mohammad Faghihi and his wife, Farzeneh Modarresi, who is a former UM researcher, were ordered detained Wednesday on conspiracy charges of receiving as much as $3.5 million to purchase genetic machines and ship them to Iran without a required license, according to court records. Faghihi, the wife, and his sister, Faezeh Faghihi, are accused of conspiring to buy some of the machines from U.S. manufacturers before shipping them to Iran between 2016 and 2020, according to a criminal complaint. Each machine cost $200,000.

Faghihi and the other family members are accused in the complaint of using the money not only to send the genetic equipment illegally to Iran but also to purchase a property for Faghihi’s company, Express Gene, in Palmetto Bay. The money was transferred to his business from various foreign bank accounts in Malaysia, China, Turkey, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Faghihi was charged with the unauthorized equipment exports to Iran along with a sanctions conspiracy, a money laundering conspiracy, smuggling goods and making a false statement to authorities. Under federal law, he was required to obtain a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which imposed the economic sanctions against Iran.

His wife, Farzeneh Modarresi, 53, was charged with conspiring to violate the same sanctions conspiracy and related offenses, including money laundering and smuggling goods. His sister, Faezeh Faghihi, 50, was also charged with the same conspiracy involving the unlawful export of genetic equipment to Iran and the related offenses.

On Wednesday, their defense attorneys, Hilton Napoleon II, representing the wife, and Bradford Cohen, the sister, argued that they should be granted a bond before trial because they have close ties to the Miami community. Thakur, the prosecutor, argued they could flee to Iran before trial.

Goodman, the judge, ordered the detention of Faghihi’s wife based on a flight risk, but not his sister, noting that the sibling is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Goodman ordered the sister to be confined with an electronic monitor at home in Pinecrest and surrender her passports, but it remains to be seen whether the sister will be able to post her bond. The judge set the terms at a $3 million personal surety, with a deposit of $300,000, and a $1 million corporate surety, which requires another deposit of $150,000. But the latter deposit is non-refundable.

Thakur said he will appeal the magistrate judge’s decision on the sister’s bond.

Mohammad Faghihi, 52, worked from 2013 to 2020 as an assistant professor in the UM medical school’s department of psychiatry and behavioral science. During this period, he was the principal investigator on several National Institutes of Health grants. Authorities said that he and his company, Express Gene, received large deposits from international wires during this period and that he failed to disclose them to UM or the NIH.

The investigation of Faghihi and his genetic business started after he was confronted by federal investigators in February 2021, when he returned from a trip to Iran, according to the criminal complaint.

Faghihi gave a “false statement” to Customs and Border Protection officers at Miami International Airport when he was asked about whether he worked in Iran or conducted any research there, the complaint said. In fact, he was the director of a genetic laboratory at the Shiraz University of Medical Science, according to Thakur, the prosecutor, who works in the counter-terrorism section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In addition, Faghihi’s luggage contained 17 vials of biological substances covered with ice packs and hidden underneath bread and other food items, the complaint said. One of the vials contained 50 DNA samples, and the other 16 held substances for genetic testing. All of the vials were subject to regulations, authorities said.

The University of Miami, which was credited with helping prosecutors and FBI in the investigation, issued a statement Wednesday.

“We understand that two former employees are the subject of a criminal complaint,” a UM spokeswoman said. “As soon as we were notified, the university fully cooperated with authorities in their investigation and will continue to do so as requested.”


© 2021 Miami Herald

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