Federal government charges 4 in Iranian conspiracy to kidnap activist from his home in the United States
NEW YORK (AP) – An Iranian intelligence officer and three suspected members of an Iranian intelligence network have been charged in Manhattan with conspiring to kidnap a prominent Iranian opposition activist and writer in exile and bring her back to Tehran, authorities said on Tuesday.
An indictment in Manhattan federal court alleges the plot was part of a larger plan to lure three people to Canada and a fifth to the UK in Iran. Victims have also been targeted in the United Arab Emirates, authorities said.
The identities of the alleged victims were not disclosed, but Brooklyn-based Masih Alinejad confirmed that authorities told her she was among the targeted victims.
“I knew this is the nature of the Islamic Republic, you know, kidnapping people, arresting people, torturing people, killing people. But I couldn’t believe it was going to happen to me in the United States of America, ”Alinejad told The Associated Press.
The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. State media in Tehran did not immediately acknowledge the alleged plot, although Iran has become more aggressive in recent years by seizing opposition journalists and dissidents abroad amid tensions over his nuclear deal in tatters.
The indictment recognizes that, naming an exiled Paris-based journalist who was later arrested by Iran and executed. Also named was a California-based member of an Iranian militant opposition group in exile whose family say he was abducted by Iran while in Dubai in 2020. Prosecutors alleged that the Iranian intelligence officer had an electronic device containing a graphic of Alinejad alongside these two men, prosecutors said.
Alinejad, who worked for years as a journalist in Iran, has long been the target of his theocracy after fleeing the country following his contested 2009 presidential election and crackdown.
She is a prominent figure on overseas Farsi-language satellite channels that critically examine Iran and works as a subcontractor for Voice of America’s Farsi-language network, funded by the United States since 2015. She became a U.S. citizen in October 2019.
Its “White Wednesday” and “My Stealthy Freedom” campaigns have seen women filming themselves without headgear or hijab in public in Iran, which can result in arrests and fines. The details of the indictment also match Alinejad’s biography.
Alinejad said authorities came to see her last year and told her that she was being watched, including photos taken from her home. She said she has since lived under the protection of the US government, including time spent in various safe houses. She also said the FBI asked her at one point to make a live video online to see if the Iranian Secret Service could follow her.
Although not charged in the kidnapping plot, Niloufar Bahadorifar, also known as Nellie, was arrested on July 1 in California for providing financial and other services to American residents and entities. Iranians and some financial services supported the plot and violated sanctions against Iran. , according to prosecutors.
The indictment says Bahadorifar, 46, from Iran, works in a California department store. Bahadorifar’s lawyer, Deputy Federal Defender Martin Cohen, declined to comment.
Bahadorifar pleaded not guilty to the charges against her at the time of her arrest and was released on bail, authorities said. She still faces an indictment in Tuesday’s replacement indictment.
The other defendants are fugitives believed to be based in Iran, authorities said.
“One of the most cherished freedoms in this country is the right to speak out without fear of reprisal from the government,” said US lawyer Audrey Strauss. “An American citizen living in the United States must be able to defend human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence agents. “
“Every person in the United States must be free from harassment, threats and physical harm from foreign powers,” added Acting Assistant US Attorney General Mark J. Lesko. “With this indictment, we bring to light a pernicious conspiracy to harm an American citizen who was exercising his First Amendment rights.”
William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of the FBI office in New York, noted that the indictment sounded a bit like “a far-fetched movie plot”.
“We allege that a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a US-based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran. Not under our supervision, ”he said.
The Iranian intelligence officer, who remains a fugitive, has been identified as Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani.
According to the indictment, Farahani, 50, and three other defendants have tried since at least June 2020 to kidnap Alinejad. If they are arrested and convicted, the four could be sentenced to life in prison.
Farahani and the network he repeatedly led in 2020 and 2021 lied about his intentions by hiring private investigators to monitor, photograph and videotape Alinejad and her family members, according to the indictment. He said the surveillance included a high-definition video feed live from the activist’s home.
The indictment alleged that the Iranian government in 2018 attempted to lure him to a third country so that a capture is possible, even offering money to his relatives to try to make this possible. Relatives, according to the indictment, refused the offer. Alinejad’s family has been the target of harassment from the Iranian government, according to a separate complaint filed by the activist in the United States.
The others accused of the kidnapping plot have been identified as Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Noori, 45, all from Iran.
According to the indictment, Sadeghi sought a service offering military-style speedboats that could conduct a sea evacuation out of New York that would eventually reach Venezuela, whose government has friendly relations with Iran.
Khazein, he said, researched travel routes between Alinejad’s home and a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn and the location of his residence in relation to Venezuela and Tehran.
Alinejad said the plot would not stop him in his activism.
“I only have one life and I’m not going to live in paranoia. I’m not going to live in fear, ”she said. “I have two options – to feel miserable, to make my oppressors miserable, so I choose the second.”