NEW YORK - Federal prosecutors say an Iran-backed murder-for-hire plot sought to murder of a U.S. citizen who has been targeted for speaking out against Iran’s human rights abuses.
According to court documents unsealed on Friday, Rafat Amirov, 43, of Iran; Polad Omarov, aka Araz Aliyev, aka Polad Qaqa, aka Haci Qaqa, 38, of the Czech Republic and Slovenia; and Khalid Mehdiyev, 24, of Yonkers, New York, are charged with money laundering and murder-for-hire.
Amirov was arraigned in New York on Friday.
Mehdiyev was arrested on July 29, 2022, on charges and will be arraigned on the charges on Jan. 31, 2023.
Omarov was arrested in the Czech Republic on Jan. 4, 2023, and the United States will request his extradition.
Their group has ties to Iran and is violent, engaging in murders, kidnappings, assaults, and extortions, and members typically identify themselves with tattoos and other displays of eight-pointed stars.
The target was Brooklyn resident Mashih Alinejad, who is a journalist, author, and human rights advocate.
"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," said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. "The Department of Justice will not tolerate attempts by an authoritarian regime to undermine those protections and the rule of law upon which our democracy is based. We will not tolerate attempts by a foreign power to threaten, silence, or harm Americans."
Prosecutors say the gang was tasked with carrying out her assassination. Beginning in approximately mid-July 2022, Amirov sent targeting information – which Amirov had received from other individuals in Iran – about Alinejad's home to Omarov. Omarov, gave the information to Mehdiyev in order to begin conducting surveillance of her and her residence and neighborhood. Mehdiyev sent photographs and videos of her home to Omarov for further sharing with Amirov and the plot’s orchestrators in Iran.
After Mehdiyev’s initial surveillance, Amirov and Omarov arranged for the delivery of a $30,000 cash payment to Mehdiyev in New York City to continue the plot. Mehdiyev used a portion of the cash to buy an AK-47-style assault rifle along with two magazines for ammunition and at least 66 rounds.
Mehdiyev bragged in a message that he had procured for himself a "war machine."
Between July 20 and 28, 2022, Mehdiyev repeatedly traveled to the Alinejad’s neighborhood to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, sending reports of the activities, photographs, and videos to Omarov to give to Amirov.
On July 24, 2022, after arriving at the home, Mehdiyev reported to Omarov that he was "at the crime scene."
Omarov responded, "You are a man!" Mehdiyev described to Omarov that "we blocked it from both sides, it will be a show once she steps out of the house." Omarov forwarded this report to Amirov, who responded, "God willing."
Mehdiyev was unable to carry out the assassination that day and returned on several subsequent days to seek out opportunities to complete the murder mission
Amirov, Omarov and Mehdiyev schemed different strategies to attempt to draw Alinejad out, including by attempting to ask her for flowers from her garden.
On July 28, 2022, Mehdiyev sent Omarov a video taken from inside the car Mehdiyev was driving showing the assault rifle, along with the message that "we are ready."
Alinejad, after noticing suspicious activity outside her home, left the area, and Mehdiyev drove away shortly afterward.
After Mehdiyev drove away, he was stopped after a traffic violation, and during a search of the car, police officers found the assault rifle, 66 rounds of ammunition, approximately $1,100 in cash, and a black ski mask.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York. "This is the second time in the past two years that this office and our partners at the FBI have disrupted plots originating from within Iran to kidnap or kill this victim for the ‘crime’ of exercising the right to free speech, to independent political thought, and to advocating for the rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised inside Iran. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the career prosecutors and FBI agents who led the investigation, this new plot to silence the victim has been disrupted and the defendants will face justice in an American court."
In 2020 and 2021, Iranian intelligence officials plotted to kidnap Alinejad in the United States to bring her to Iran.
The FBI disrupted and exposed that plot and led to federal kidnapping conspiracy and other charges against several participants.
Amirov, Omarov, and Mehdiyev are charged with: murder-for-hire, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Mehdiyev is additionally charged with possessing a firearm with an obliterated serial number.