DOJ charges 3 in 'murder for hire' plot against Iranian journalist

Two men hired another man to kill a journalist critical of Iran, feds say.

January 27, 2023, 7:58 PM

Six months after a man with a loaded AK-47-style rifle was caught outside the Brooklyn, New York, home of a prominent Iranian dissident journalist, federal prosecutors on Friday announced new arrests in what they've called a murder-for-hire plot by Iran.

On Friday, the Justice Department announced criminal charges against two men, Rafat Amirov and Polad Omarov, for targeting journalist Masih Alinejad because her reporting publicized Iran's human rights abuses, its treatment of women and its suppression of democratic participation.

Amirov lives in Iran and Omarov lives in Eastern Europe. Along with Khalid Mehdiyev, who was previously arrested in Brooklyn, they were part of an Eastern European criminal organization with ties to Iran, according to the charging documents.

Amirov, the leader, worked with Omarov to arrange for the payment of $30,000 to Mehdiyev, "who then procured an AK-47-style assault rifle for carrying out the murder," according to the criminal complaint.

"At Amirov's and Omarov's instructions, Mehdiyev surveilled the Victim and members of the Victim's family; took photographs and videos of the Victim's residence in Brooklyn and the surrounding neighborhood; and devised schemes to lure the Victim out of the Victim's house," a charging document says.

The Justice Department alleges that the government of Iran has previously targeted dissidents, and Alinejad in particular. In 2018, Iranian government officials attempted to "induce relatives of the Victim who reside in Iran to invite the Victim to travel to a third country for the apparent purpose of having the Victim arrested or detained and transported to Iran for imprisonment," prosecutors allege.

Omarov tasked Mehdiyev on July 13, 2022, with carrying out the murder for hire plot, the DOJ claims. The men allegedly arranged to have a cash payment of $30,000 delivered to Mehdiyev, who then acquired an AK-47-type weapon to carry out the attack, according to court documents.

PHOTO: An image taken from a doorbell video shows Khalid Mehdiyev on the porch of the home of Masih Alinejad, July 28, 2022, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
An image taken from a doorbell video shows Khalid Mehdiyev on the porch of the home of Masih Alinejad, July 28, 2022, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Mehdiyev and two others have been charged by the Justice Department as part of an Iran-backed plot to kill Alinejad, an Iranian American author and activist who has spoken out against human rights abuses.
Courtesy of Masih Alinejad via AP

"War machine," Mehdiyev allegedly told the co-conspirators in a message, in apparent reference to the weapon.

For eight days, the three men surveilled the home of Alinejad, 45, and schemed to get her out of her house, according to documents. One plan involved sending her flowers so she would have to step outside, the documents said.

"It will be a show once she steps out of the house," Mehdiyev allegedly told Omarov in a message.

A day later, on July 28, Mehdiyev was stopped by the NYPD after leaving the area, and was arrested.

"Today's indictment exposes a dangerous menace to national security -- a double threat posed by a vicious transnational crime group operating from what it thought was the safe haven of a rogue nation: Iran," Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Friday.

The Iranians were so intent on silencing Alinejad, its intelligence personnel developed a series of possible escape routes, including travel from Brooklyn, a speedboat from Manhattan, and another boat to Venezuela, according to the complaint.

Amirov and Omarov are charged with money laundering and murder for hire. Amirov appeared briefly Friday in court to plead not guilty to the murder-for-hire charges. He did not contest being held without bail.

Prosecutors did not explain how U.S. officials managed to arrest Amirov, who had been living in Iran.

Omirov was arrested in the Czech Republic and U.S. authorities are seeking his extradition.

Mehdiyev, who was previously in custody, is expected in court next week.

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