Iranian Official Charged in Plot to Kidnap U.S. Journalist

An Iranian intelligence official and three others were charged with conspiring to kidnap an Iranian-born U.S. citizen who has been a sharp critic of her birth country’s repressive government.

Masih Alinejad, a journalist, author and activist, was the target of a plot to force her to return to Iran as part of a scheme by its government to silence critics living overseas, prosecutors in New York charged in an indictment made public on Tuesday. Alinejad, who lives in Brooklyn, wasn’t named in court papers, but she identified herself in a Twitter post later.

“I am grateful to FBI for foiling the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry’s plot to kidnap me,” Alinejad said.

She said the plot was orchestrated under Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and pointed to others who had been kidnapped and jailed or executed by the regime.

On Wednesday Iran’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the charges as a “Hollywood scenario” and “so baseless and ridiculous that it really isn’t worth a response,” the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency reported, quoting spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.

Alinejad wrote in August 2020 that she’d recently learned the Iranian government had called for her to be abducted.

“The regime’s cruel treatment of women remains one of its biggest weaknesses, and my focus on related injustices explains why it remains so persistent in targeting me,” Alinejad wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

The intelligence official, Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani, 50, directs a network that has targeted victims in the U.S., France and the United Arab Emirates, prosecutors said. They claim the plot is part of “a scheme by the Islamic Republic of Iran to target dissidents who oppose the regime’s violations of human rights, suppression of democratic participation and freedom of expression and corruption.”

Farahani and three members of his intelligence network are charged with kidnapping conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, sanctions violations conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy.

Charged with Farahani in the kidnapping conspiracy are Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Noori, 45. All four are based in Iran and outside U.S. custody, according to prosecutors. The charges against them carry a maximum of life in prison.

A California resident, Niloufar “Nellie” Bahadorifar, 46, is accused of providing financial services to the group.

Bahadorifar was arrested July 1 in California on charges she aided the group by paying a private investigator, who was tasked with tracking Alinejad, on Farahani’s behalf. She’s charged with conspiring to commit bank and wire fraud, to violate sanctions against Iran and to launder money. Bahadorifar isn’t charged with participating in the kidnapping plot. She’s free on $250,000 bond.

Bahadorifar’s lawyer, Martin Cohen, declined to comment on the charges.

Prosecutors say Farahani and his network have plotted since June 2020 to kidnap the journalist, hiring investigators to conduct surveillance and take photographs and video recordings of Alinejad and her family at home. The group disguised their identities and lied to the investigators about the purpose of the surveillance, according to the government.

The case is U.S. v. Farahani, 21-cr-00430, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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