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Four charged in Iran plot to kidnap activist in US, others

“Every person in the United States must be free from harassment, threats and physical harm by foreign powers,” Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Lesko said

SNS | NEW YORK |

An Iranian intelligence officer and three alleged members of an Iranian intelligence network have been charged in Manhattan with plotting to kidnap a prominent Iranian opposition activist and writer in exile and take her back to Tehran, authorities said Tuesday.

An indictment in Manhattan federal court alleges that the plot was part of a wider plan to lure three individuals in Canada and a fifth person in the United Kingdom to Iran. Victims were also targeted in the United Arab Emirates, authorities said.

The identities of the alleged victims were not released but Brooklyn-based Masih Alinejad confirmed that authorities had told her she was among the targeted victims.

Iran’s 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.

The indictment acknowledges that, naming an exiled Paris-based journalist later seized by Iran and executed.

Also named was a California-based member of an Iranian militant opposition group in exile whose family says he was abducted by Iran while staying in Dubai in 2020.

Prosecutors alleged the Iranian intelligence officer had an electronic device containing a graphic of Alinejad alongside those two men, prosecutors 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.

Alinejad said authorities had come to her last year and told her she was being watched, including photos being taken of her home.

Although not charged in the kidnapping plot, Niloufar Bahadorifar, also known as Nellie, was arrested 1 July in California on charges that she has provided U.S. financial and other services to Iranian residents and entities and some financial services supported the plot and violated sanctions against Iran, according to prosecutors.

The indictment said Bahadorifar, 46, originally from Iran, works at a California department store. Bahadorifar’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Defender Martin Cohen, declined to comment.

Bahadorifar has pleaded not guilty and was released on bail, authorities said. She still faces arraignment on charges in Tuesday’s superseding indictment.

The rest of the defendants are fugitives believed to be based in Iran, authorities said.

“Among this country’s most cherished freedoms is the right to speak one’s mind without fear of government reprisal,” U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said.

“A U.S. citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives.”

“Every person in the United States must be free from harassment, threats and physical harm by foreign powers,” Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Lesko added.

“Through this indictment, we bring to light one such pernicious plot to harm an American citizen who was exercising their First Amendment rights.”

William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of New York’s FBI office, noted that the indictment sounded a bit like “some far-fetched movie plot.”

“We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a U.S. based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran. Not on our watch,” he said.

The Iranian intelligence officer, who remains a fugitive, was identified as Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani.

According to the indictment, Farahani, 50, and three other defendants tried since at least June 2020 to kidnap Alinejad. If caught and convicted, the four could face life in prison.

The others charged in the kidnapping plot were identified as Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Noori, 45, all from Iran.

According to the indictment, Sadeghi researched a service offering military-style speedboats that could perform a maritime evacuation out of New York City that would ultimately reach Venezuela, whose government has friendly relations with Iran.

Khazein, it said, researched travel routes from Alinejad’s home to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn and the location of her residence relative to Venezuela and Tehran.

Alinejad said the plot wouldn’t stop her from her activism.

“I have only 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 — feel miserable, make my oppressors feel miserable, so I choose the second one.”