FILE – Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American journalist and women’s rights activist, speaks on stage at the Women in the World Summit in New York, April 12, 2019.
Three members of an Eastern European criminal gang with ties to the Iranian government have been indicted in a plot to kill Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American human rights activist and VOA Persian TV host, the Justice Department announced Friday.
Rafat Amirov, Polad Omarov and Khalid Mehdiyev are in custody and face charges of murder for hire and money laundering, Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.
Prosecutors say the men are members of a gang, called Thieves-in-Law, that engages in killings, kidnappings, assaults and extortions in the United States and other countries.
Amirov, the alleged ringleader of the assassination plot, is a citizen of Azerbaijan and Russia who lived in Iran until his recent arrest outside the United States. He arrived in New York on Thursday and was expected to be arraigned on Friday.
Mehdiyev, the alleged hired hitman, is also a citizen of Azerbaijan and a resident of Yonkers, New York. He was arrested last July near Alinejad’s residence and charged with a gun offense. He’ll be arraigned next Tuesday.
Omarov, a citizen of Georgia who lived in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, allegedly coordinated between the two others. He was detained in the Czech Republic on January 4, and U.S. officials said they would seek his extradition.
Accusation against Iran
All three are named in a criminal indictment that was unsealed on Friday. Although the document does not say whether Iranian officials orchestrated the plot, U.S. law enforcement officials accused Tehran of direct involvement.
“In the United States of America, our system of laws protects our citizens in the peaceful exercise of their constitutional and civil rights,” Garland said. “The Department of Justice will not tolerate attempts by an authoritarian regime to undermine those protections and the rule of law upon which our democracy is based.”
Alinejad, an outspoken critic of the Iranian government, hosts a current affairs TV show out of New York for VOA’s Persian language service.
Reacting to the developments, she said in a Twitter video that she had no plans to stop what she is doing and called on U.S. authorities to pay more attention to the situation facing people in Iran.
“I’m not scared for my life,” she said. “I knew that killing, assassinating, hanging, torturing, raping is in the DNA of the Islamic Republic. That’s why I came to the United States of America, to practice my right, my freedom of expression to be voice to the brave people of Iran who say ‘no’ to the Islamic Republic.”
Alinejad has long been a target of the Iranian government, and officials said this was the second time in two years that U.S. law enforcement had thwarted a plot against her.
In 2021, federal prosecutors charged an Iranian intelligence officer and three Iranian intelligence assets with plotting to abduct Alinejad for rendition to Iran and likely execution.
But the charges against the four men, who remain at large, apparently did not dissuade Iran from attempting to target Alinejad again, prosecutors said.
Targeting information shared
About one year later, in July 2022, the Thieves-in-Law gang was tasked by “other individuals” in Iran to undertake the killing of Alinejad, according to the indictment.
The indictment details how Amirov, while living in Iran, received targeting information about Alinejad and shared it with Omarov, who in turn directed Mehdiyev to carry out the hit.
Amirov and Omarov arranged for the payment of $30,000 in cash to Mehdiyev to buy an AK-47-style assault rifle with a defaced serial number.
At the senior gangsters’ urging, Mehdiyev then allegedly began conducting surveillance of Alinejad and her residence in Brooklyn, taking photographs and videos and spending no less than eight days trying to lure her outside her house, according to the indictment.
Suspected Plot Against VOA Persian Host in New York Underscores Dangers of Transnational Reprisal
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The plot fell through when Mehdiyev was stopped for a traffic violation not far from Alinejad’s residence last July. Inside his car, police found the assault rifle, two magazines and about 66 rounds of ammunition.
He was arrested and charged with a federal firearms offense.
Police didn’t know this, but at the time of his arrest, Mehdiyev “was preparing imminently to execute the attack on the victim,” according to the indictment.
Prosecutors said the failed murder-for-hire plot was part of a broader campaign of “transnational repression” by the Iranian government against dissidents living abroad.
“The conduct charged in today’s case shows just how far Iranian actors are willing to go to silence critics of the Iranian regime, even attempting an assassination right here in the United States,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said.