Mirror Trading International (MTI) founder and CEO Johann Steynberg’s attempt to be released from prison or placed under house arrest while awaiting extradition to South Africa was shot down by a judge in Brazil this week.
Buried in the judgment, however, is a curious nugget of information: Steynberg has a family in Brazil – in which case, he may be preparing to raise the Ronnie Biggs defence to fight the extradition.
What is not mentioned in the judgment is that Steynberg already has a family in South Africa.
Ronnie Biggs was one of the members of a gang which stole £2.6m from a British mail train in 1963. He was caught and jailed for 30 years. In 1965 he escaped London’s Wandsworth Prison and went on the run, evading arrest for several decades. He ended up in Brazil, where he was able to fight extradition on the basis that he had a child with his Brazilian girlfriend. He became something of a celebrity in Brazil, selling T-shirts bearing his likeness to tourists and even making a song with the Sex Pistols. Biggs died in 2013, having voluntarily returned home to the UK in 2001 to face arrest. He was released from prison in 2009 on grounds of compassion.
“It’s been speculated for months that Steynberg would raise the Ronnie Biggs defence,” says Sean Newman, who is writing a book on the inner workings of MTI. “Now it seems this has actually happened.”
It was reported at the time of Steynberg’s arrest in December 2021 that he had a Brazilian girlfriend. No further details were given in Monday’s judgment as to who the family members are in Brazil.
Brazil is known to be reluctant to extradite people with children born in Brazil, though the judge did not rule out extradition in Steynberg’s case merely because he had a family in that country.
“The fact that the person being extradited has taken up residence in Brazil and constituted a family does not, in itself, prevent precautionary arrest and future extradition. As well observed by the Attorney General’s Office, the ‘rule in extraditions is precautionary arrest, due to mutual respect between jurisdictions’. The person being extradited, it must be repeated, is under arrest in his country of origin,” reads a machine translation of the judgment.
The judgment confirms that SA’s Department of Foreign Affairs had lodged a formal extradition request. Among Steynberg’s defences against extradition were that the request was lodged more than 60 days after his arrest, that there was no warrant for his arrest when he left SA in December 2020, that the crime of which he is accused is non-violent and poses no serious threat, and that there are no concrete elements suggesting he would abscond if set free. He also questioned whether the case against him met the Brazilian requirements for extradition.
MTI collapsed in December 2020 when Steynberg fled the country, after the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) warned the public to pull their money out of the scheme on the grounds that it was operating without a licence and promising unsustainable profits of up to 10% a month.
He was arrested roughly a year later in the city of Goiânia in central Brazil, allegedly under a false identity.
To participate in MTI you had to electronically ship BTC to MTI. More than 300 000 people worldwide participated, and funnelled more than 39 000 BTC through the scheme, according to liquidators. Argument was recently heard in the Western Cape High Court, led by Advocate Rudi van Rooyen for the liquidators, that MTI was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, in which case all payouts would be unlawful and would have to be returned. That application was opposed by some of the winners in the scheme. Judgment in that case has been reserved.
The Brazilian judgment details the charges against Steynberg, including trading of unlicensed financial products in violation of section 111 Act Financial Sector Regulation Act; conducting a derivatives business without the requisite licence in terms of Section 2 of the Financial Market Law Act; theft; money laundering; and fraud, among others.