WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Friday charged three Azerbaijani gangsters with plotting to murder a Brooklyn-based Iranian-American author and activist last year.
The case stems from the July arrest of Khalid Mehdiyev, who was collared near Masih Alinejad’s home with an assault rifle after the beefy and bearded 24-year-old was filmed ringing Alinejad’s doorbell and lingering on her porch in a leafy part of New York City boroughs.
The other two men facing charges are 43-year-old Rafat “Rome” Amirov, a resident of Iran who was arrested on Jan. 26 in New York, and 38-year-old Polad “Haci Qaqa” Omarov, who was arrested in the Czech Republic on Jan. 4.
Amirov is purportedly a leader of an Eastern European criminal organization whose members are identified by tattoos of eight-pointed stars. Omarov and Mehdiyev also allegedly are members of the group. The trio are charged in a superseding indictment in Manhattan federal court with murder-for-hire, conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Mehdiyev was also hit with a weapons charge.
“I’m not scared,” Alinejad told the Associated Press following the announcement. “I want to tell you that the Iranian regime thinks that 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.”
The Justice Department gave top billing to the new charges with a rare DC press conference featuring Attorney General Merrick Garland, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Manhattan US Attorney Damian Williams.
“The Department of Justice will not tolerate attempts by an authoritarian regime to undermine [human rights] protections and the rule of law upon which our democracy is based,” Garland said. “We will not tolerate attempts by a foreign power to threaten, silence, or harm Americans.”
Mehdiyev was busted by New York City cops on July 28, 2022 after rolling through a stop sign in a gray Subaru Forester SUV with an Illinois license plate. He was arrested for driving without a license and a search of his car found a loaded AK-47 with additional magazines and rounds of ammunition, along with a suitcase with more than $1,000 in cash.
The hulking suspect allegedly lured outside Alinejad’s Brooklyn home for two days before his arrest, texting Omarov to discuss processes to lure her outside. The day Mehdiyev was apprehended, he sent Omarov a video displaying the AK. When Omarov forwarded the video to Amirov, the mastermind allegedly responded that the would-be hitman should “keep the car clean.”
Days after the bust, the dissident published on Twitter an unnerving video of Mehdiyev ringing her doorbell and looking around her large porch.
The indictment notes that Alinejad has been a target of Tehran’s theocracy dating back to at least 2018, though Friday’s indictment does not explicitly point the finger at the Shiite regime for the plot — rather blaming “individuals in Iran” for tasking the defendants with killing her .
About a year prior to the aborted hit, an Iranian intelligence official and three others were indicted on charges they had plotted to kidnap Alinejad.
“This case began with our investigation of Iran’s efforts to project power and to extend its tentacles of oppression to American shores to the targeting of an Iranian American journalist who has stood up to the brutal regime,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Friday. “This time, it was a newer actor who brought the campaign of violence to America, an Eastern European criminal organization made up of a self-described group or thieves who were involved in extortion and kidnapping, and in this case, murder for hire. The charges unsealed today show how organized crime in pursuit of profits and operations from a rogue nation can pose a grave threat to our national security.”
Although Alinejad, a US citizen, is a relatively obscure figure to Americans, her work with the US-funded Voice of America Persian Service and with Radio Farda has enraged Iran’s government.
“The victim in this case was targeted for exercising the rights to which every American citizen is entitled. 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 poses 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, especially videos contrary to laws mandating that women and girls wear heads coverings.”
Shortly after the new charges were announced, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the Biden administration attempts to resurrect an Obama-era nuclear deal with Tehran were on the back-burner.
“Quite frankly, the Iran deal is not on the top of the agenda right now, for a number of reasons, let alone that Iran is killing its own people continues to kill its own people,” Kirby said. “Iran wasn’t entering the negotiations in a serious way trying to load it up with a whole bunch of things that had nothing to do with the nuclear deal. So we are not prioritizing a reentry into the Iran deal right now.”
The Eastern European gang’s association with Iran was not fully fleshed out in initial disclosures; however, the defendants’ native country of Azerbaijan shares a border and cultural ties with its larger neighbor.
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