WASHINGTON—The Justice Department has charged three men in an alleged plot that originated in Iran to kill an Iranian American author and activist who has spoken out against human rights abuses there, officials said Friday.
The men, Rafat Amirov, 43, of Iran, Polad Omarov, 38, of the Czech Republic and Slovenia and Khalid Mehdiyev, 24, of Yonkers, New York, were charged with money laundering and murder-for-hire in an indictment unsealed in federal court in New York. The three men were in custody and one was awaiting extradition to the United States.
Masih Alinejad, an Iranian opposition activist, journalist and writer in exile in New York City, confirmed to The Associated Press that she was the intended target.
“I’m not scared,” Alinejad told the AP after U.S. authorities announced the charges. “I want to tell you that the Iranian regime thinks by trying to kill me, they will silence me, or silence other women. But they only strengthen me, make me more powerful to fight for democracy and give voice to brave women who are facing guns and bullets in the streets to get rid of the Islamic Republic.”
Activist Masih Alinejad speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 19, 2023. (Markus Schreiber/AP Photo)
She said FBI officials had read her the messages that the plotters exchanged between themselves, including a final one: “It’s going to be done today.”
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the charges. Iranian state media did not immediately acknowledge the alleged plot late Friday.
While the man who allegedly orchestrated the plot lives in Iran, the indictment does not directly accuse the country’s theocracy of being behind the alleged murder-for-hire.
Still, the case “follows a disturbing pattern of Iranian government-sponsored efforts to kill, torture, and intimidate into silence activists for speaking out for the fundamental rights and freedoms of Iranians around the world,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Mehdiyev was arrested last year after he was found driving around Masih’s Brooklyn neighborhood with a loaded rifle and dozens of rounds of ammunition. Alinejad told The Associated Press at the time that authorities told her the man was looking for her, and that a home security video had caught him skulking outside her front door.
“The government of Iran has previously targeted dissidents around the world, including the victim, who oppose the regime’s violations of human rights,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in announcing the charges.
He said “individuals in Iran” had tasked the defendants with carrying out the plot to kill the activist.
“The victim publicized the Iranian government’s human rights abuses, discriminatory treatment of women, suppression of democratic participation and expression, and use of arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and execution,” Garland said. In 2019, “this activity posed such a threat to the government of Iran that the chief judge of Iran’s Revolutionary courts warned that anyone who sent videos to the victim criticizing the regime would be sentenced to prison.”
In 2021, an Iranian intelligence official and three others were charged with plotting to kidnap the victim, he said.
All three defendants are natives of Azerbaijan, which shares a border and cultural ties with Iran.
Amirov made his initial court appearance in New York and attorney Michael Martin entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. The defense didn’t immediately ask for bail in the brief court appearance. Amirov used a Russian interpreter since he speaks it, though it isn’t his first language.
An attorney for Mehdiyev declined to comment Friday. Omarov was arrested in the Czech Republic earlier this month. It was not immediately clear if he had an attorney to speak on his behalf.
“This case also highlights the evolving threat and the increasingly brazen conduct emanating from Iran,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. She also pointed to charges filed against members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in an alleged plot to kill a former U.S. national security adviser, as well as as charges against Iranian hackers accused of targeting utility companies.
In recent years, Iranian intelligence and security services have stepped up the use of “transnational repression tactics” to target political opponents and critics, said FBI Director Christopher Wray. Along with kidnapping and assassination plots, tactics have included surveillance, cyber operations, and intimidation of family and friends in Iran, he said.
“The Iranian government’s efforts to silence its critics aren’t confined to the borders of Iran,” Wray said.
Tensions between the United States and Iran are even higher than usual, with the Biden administration’s attempts to revive a 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program falling apart and the U.S. denouncing Iran’s targeting of protesters there. Iran also is accused of providing Russia with drones that are playing a significant role in Russian attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine.
Alinejad told the AP she hoped that the ruthlessness of Iranians plotting to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil would convince President Joe Biden to act on calls by some in Congress and elsewhere to place Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the U.S. list of terrorist entities.
“They are actually challenging the U.S. authorities to see what the consequence is going to be if there is no punishment, and there is no reason for them to stop killing innocent Americans or innocent Iranians,” she said.
Alinejad, who worked for years as a journalist in Iran, long has been targeted by its theocracy after fleeing the country following its disputed 2009 presidential election and crackdown.
She is a prominent figure on Farsi-language satellite channels abroad that critically view Iran, and she has worked as a contractor for U.S.-funded Voice of America’s Farsi-language network since 2015. She became a U.S. citizen in October 2019.
Her “White Wednesday” and “My Stealthy Freedom” campaigns have seen women film themselves without head coverings, or hijabs, in public in Iran, which can bring arrests and fines. She also has been amplifying the voices of those protesting in Iran since the September death of Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested by the morality police.
The three defendants, meanwhile, are members of an Eastern European criminal organization that has ties to Iran, according to court papers.
Amirov, a leader of the group living in Iran, “was tasked” with targeting her by unnamed people there, the indictment states. Garland declined to give further detail on where the orders originated. Amirov turned to Omarov, who lives in Eastern Europe, and they brought in the New York-based Mehdiyev, giving him $30,000 in cash. Mehdiyev got the rifle and began watching her house in July, U.S. authorities said.
He took photos and video and thought up ways to try to lure her outside for more than a week, the indictment states. At one point, Mehdiyev described himself as being “at the crime scene.”
But on July 28, Alinejad left her home after seeing something suspicious. When Mehdiyev tried to drive away shortly after, he was stopped by a New York police officer. Police found the gun, ammunition magazines, cash, and a black ski mask. He was arrested on a federal firearms charge.
By Lindsay Whitehurst and Ellen Knickmeyer