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Source: NY Times

Apr 7, 2023

Niloufar Bahadorifar apologized after transferring money to help in a plan against the journalist Masih Alinehad, calling her “a hero to all Iranians.”

By Colin Moynihan

In the summer of 2020, Niloufar Bahadorifar, an expatriate Iranian in California, received a message from someone in her home country asking her to send money to the PayPal account of a person in Manhattan.

Ms. Bahadorifar passed along $670 and forwarded proof of the transaction to Iran.The payment may have seemed unremarkable, but federal prosecutors have said it was part of an audacious plot to kidnap an Iranian-born journalist who fled the authoritarian government in Tehran in 2009 and had been living in New York City.

Iranian operatives employed private investigators in the United States who were unaware of the plan but spied on the journalist, Masih Alinejad, even setting up a live, high-definition video feed of her home, the prosecutors said.Ms. Bahadorifar’s payment went to one of those investigators.

She was not accused of taking part in the kidnapping conspiracy, but pleaded guilty last year to a charge of conspiracy to violate U.S. economic sanctions on Iran by helping channel money to the investigator.

On Friday, a federal judge in Manhattan sentenced Ms. Bahadorifar to four years in prison. Ms. Alinejad, appearing in court, said that being targeted by the Iranian government would not deter her activism but acknowledged that it had taken a toll.

She had experienced nightmares, she said, and had been living in safe houses after being forced to move out of her home of 10 years.“I no longer feel safe in America,” she told Judge Ronnie Abrams of Federal District Court in Manhattan, adding: “I miss my tree-lined streets in my corner of Brooklyn, and I miss my neighbors.

Minutes later, Ms. Bahadorifar tearfully apologized for her crime, at one point addressing Ms. Alinejad, who was seated in the gallery.“I am humiliated to have been involved in any attempt to harm you, even if I was unaware of it,” she said.

“You are a hero to all Iranians.”Her punishment may be the only one to result from an indictment that was unsealed in 2021 and detailed the plot. The other defendants — an Iranian intelligence official, Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani, and three operatives, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori — all live in Iran.

Even if those four men never stand trial, federal officials have said that indicting them helps deter similar plots and protects American citizens like Ms. Alinejad.

The indictment provides a glimpse into a byzantine plan that included the use of a real estate listing service to research Ms. Alinejad’s neighborhood in Brooklyn, the potential use of speedboats to spirit her away from New York City and an ocean voyage to Latin America.

Ms. Bahadorifar’s lawyers emphasized in a letter to the court that she had no knowledge of the kidnapping plot and suggested that she had helped the Iranian operatives because she was intimidated.

Ms. Bahadorifar, they added, had been arrested in Iran when she was 10 years old, and her sister and niece, who still live there, had been threatened by the regime.

They said a longtime family friend had bamboozled Ms. Bahadorifar into making the PayPal transaction.“She was unwittingly duped and manipulated into becoming part of an evil plot to silence a journalist from her former country,” the lawyers, Jeffrey Lichtman and Jeffrey Einhorn, wrote.

The publicly available version of the letter was heavily redacted and did not include the friend’s name.

In their own letter to the court, prosecutors said that Ms. Bahadorifar had sent Mr. Noori a screenshot of the payment confirmation with the note: “Requested from Mr. M. Khazein.”

“She knew she was assisting Khazein, who she understood was connected to Iranian intelligence, and his associates, even if she was not specifically aware of their ultimate goals,” prosecutors wrote.

Sanctions imposed by the United States in response to Iran’s support of international terrorism and its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction forbid the supply of American banking and financial services to Iran without a special Treasury Department license.

Around 2014, prosecutors wrote, Ms. Bahadorifar started receiving regular payments from Iran provided by Mr. Khazein, a businessman and member of a volunteer auxiliary division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. She maintained bank accounts and made payments at his request, helping him import commodities to Iran and adding him as an account holder on credit cards, they said.

Over about nine months in July 2020, according to prosecutors, Ms. Bahadorifar made more than 100 bank deposits of cash totaling $476,100, almost all structured to avoid being reported to the U.S. government.

The Iranian government appears to have been displeased for some time with Ms. Alinejad, who has written about the discriminatory treatment of women in Iran and the use of imprisonment, torture and execution against the regime’s opponents.

Ms. Alinejad wrote in 2018 that while living in Iran she had often been threatened for writing articles critical of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 2020, she wrote that Iranian officials had begun a social media campaign calling for her abduction.

Around 2018, prosecutors said, Iranian officials tried unsuccessfully to get relatives of Ms. Alinejad in Iran to invite her to travel to another country, apparently for the purpose of arresting her. The next year, they added, one of Ms. Alinejad’s relatives in Iran was arrested on charges “purportedly based” on an association with her.

According to an indictment, Iranian operatives plotting to kidnap Ms. Alinejad researched routes from her home to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn, a service offering “military-style speedboats” and travel by water from New York to Venezuela, a country whose government has friendly relations with Iran.

The Iranian operatives also hired investigators to spy on Ms. Alinejad, her family and her associates, the indictment said. One of them, Michael McKeever, was asked to help in tracking down a debtor who had fled Dubai; Mr. McKeever had no idea he was working on behalf of the Iranian government.

While watching Ms. Alinejad, Mr. McKeever said, he was warned by an F.B.I. agent that his clients had nefarious motives. After that, Mr. McKeever added, he cooperated with the federal authorities, an account that was confirmed by the F.B.I.

The charges against Ms. Bahadorifar and her co-defendants did not end the danger faced by Ms. Alinejad. Last summer, a man with a loaded AK-47-style assault rifle was arrested near her home after law enforcement officers said he spent several hours there and tried to look in through windows.

That man, Khalid Mehdiyev, and two others, all said to be part of an Eastern European criminal syndicate known as Thieves-in-Law, were charged this year with plotting to murder Ms. Alinejad. Federal officials have said the group has ties to Iran.

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