WASHINGTON (AP) - 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 U.S.
Though authorities didn't identify the alleged target by name, Masih Alinejad, an Iranian opposition activist 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."
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.
An attorney for Mehdiyev declined to comment on Friday. Amirov was expected to make an initial appearance in New York federal court on Friday, and Omarov was arrested in the Czech Republic earlier this month. It was not immediately clear if they had attorneys to speak on their behalf.
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. Federal officials also learned that photos were taken of her home.
"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. "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.
"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.
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.
"I want to meet with my president, to ask face to face ... whether he's going to be with with me, with the people of Iran, with the women of Iran," 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 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 charges follow a "a disturbing pattern," of the Iranian government's efforts to silence activists, but should serve as a warning of the "long reach of the U.S. government in defense of Americans everywhere," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
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.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
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