U.S. prosecutors have accused four Iranians alleged to be intelligence operatives of Tehran of plotting to kidnap a New York journalist and human rights activist who was critical of Iran, according to a Justice Department indictment. unsealed Tuesday.
In recent years, Iranian intelligence officers have tricked a number of overseas activists into traveling to destinations where they were kidnapped and sent back to Iran, U.S. authorities said.
While the indictment does not mention the target of the action, Reuters has confirmed that she is Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad, who has contributed to the US government-funded Voice of America Persian language service and reports on human rights issues in Iran.
Asked by Reuters to confirm that Alinejad was the target of the plot, the Justice Department declined to comment.
But Alinejad, who was reached by phone by Reuters after the indictment was released, said she was in shock. She said she had been working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation since the agency approached her eight months ago with photographs taken of the plotters.
“They showed me that the Islamic Republic had come very close,” she said.
The four Iranians hired private investigators under false pretenses to monitor the Brooklyn journalist and videotaped her family and home as part of a plot to kidnap her, according to prosecutors.
The four defendants “planned by force to take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best,” said Audrey Strauss, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Iranian agents hired private investigators in Manhattan to monitor Alinejad and her family, claiming she was a missing person from Dubai who had fled the country to avoid paying a debt, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said Iranian agents had investigated how they could breathe the journalist out of New York on a high-speed boat en route to Caracas.
Iran directed the operation at the journalist with “the intention of luring our citizens back to Iran in retaliation for their freedom of speech,” said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. from the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division.
In 2019, Iranian intelligence officers are luring Ruhollah Zam, a journalist living in France, out of the country and capturing and later executing him in Iran because of prosecution, prosecutors said.
Representatives of Iran’s mission to the UN could not be reached for comment.
Alinejad said she had drawn Iran’s anger by publishing women in Iran protesting against laws requiring headgear, as well as reports of Iranians killed in demonstrations in 2019.
Alinejad said Iranian agents had repeatedly tried to lure her to Turkey with threats and promises to meet the family, she said.
FBI agents warned Alinejad earlier this year that Iran was planning to kidnap her, moving the journalist and her husband to a number of safe houses as they investigated the case.
She said she was still reading the indictment.
“I can not believe I’m not even safe in America,” she said.
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