WASHINGTON (CN) — U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced charges Friday against three members of an Eastern European criminal organization said to have plotted the murder of a dissident Iranian journalist living in Brooklyn.
Masih Alinejad fled her home country in 2009 and became a U.S. citizen in 2019. Even in exile, however, she remains a target of the Iranian government because of her activism concerning Tehran's treatment of women and other human rights issues.
Prosecutors say the Iranian government assigned the assassination of Alinejad in 2022 to members of the Thieves in Law mafia, an organization based in various former states of the Soviet Union whose members are often identified by tattoos of eight-pointed stars.
“But their plot was disrupted,” Attorney General Garland said during a news conference at Department of Justice headquarters in Washington. “And all the defendants will now stand trial in the United States for their alleged crimes.”
The 25-page indictment names Rafat Amirov, 43, of Iran; Polad Omarov, 38, of the Czech Republic, Slovenia and the republic of Georgia as well; and Khalid Mehdiyev, 24, an Azerbaijani living in Yonkers, New York. They each face charges of murder-for-hire, conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and money laundering. Mehdiyev is also charged with unlawful possession of a defaced firearm.
Prosecutors say Amirov and Omarov are leaders in their organization and arranged to pay Mehdiyev, who is a lower-level member, $30,000 in cash. Mehdiyev subsequently obtained an assault rifle in the style of an AK-47 for the planned assassination.
The indictment includes text messages in which Mehdiyev gloated to his housemates about the weapon. “I bought this thing.. you'd lose your mind if you saw it…War machine,” he texted in Turkish, punctuated with 10 crying-laughing emojis.
For about a week beginning on July 20, 2022, Mehdiyev repeatedly traveled to Alinejad’s neighborhood in Brooklyn to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, sending reports of her activities as well as photographs and videos to Omarov, who passed the information along to Amirov in Iran.
On July 28, Alinejad observed Mehdiyev skulking outside her front door on home security video. She left the area, as did Mehdiyev about 15 minutes later. When officers with the New York City Police Department pulled him over for a traffic violation, they found the assault rifle, two magazines of ammunition, some 66 rounds of ammunition, approximately $1,100 in cash and a black ski mask.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said the charges in Friday’s indictment show “how far Iranian actors are willing to go to silence critics, even attempting to assassinate a U.S. citizen on American soil.”
The Iranian government has previously targeted the victim. “A recently as 2020 and 2021,” according to charging papers, “Iranian intelligence officials and assets plotted to kidnap the victim from within the United States for rendition to Iran in an effort to silence the victim’s criticism of the regime.”
Alinejad is famous for her campaign against the hijab, a headscarf that Islamic Republic makes mandatory for women. She fled the country after its disputed 2009 presidential election and has become a prominent figure on Farsi-language satellite channels abroad that criticize Iran.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said the indictment exposes a “dangerous menace to national security” that was “a double threat posed by a vicious transnational crime group operating from what it thought was the safe haven of a rogue nation: Iran.”
All three defendants are in custody. Amirov is set to be arraigned Friday in the Southern District of New York. Mehdiyev has been in custody since July 29 on charges in an underlying criminal complaint and is set to be arraigned on the charges in the superseding on Jan. 31. Omarov was arrested in the Czech Republic earlier this month, and U.S. authorities are expected to request his extradition on the charges in the superseding indictment.
Garland, Monaco and Wray were also joined Friday by Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen and U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.