By Luc Cohen

U.S. prosecutors have charged three men with attempting to assassinate a prominent critic of Iran‘s government who was previously the target of a failed Tehran-backed kidnapping plot, Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Friday,

Rafat Amirov, Polad Omarov and Khalid Mehdiyev were charged with murder-for-hire and money laundering for their role in the thwarted Tehran-backed assassination attempt of the journalist and activist, who is a U.S. citizen and lives in Brooklyn.

“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.

Garland did not name the alleged victim, but Mehdiyev was arrested last year in New York for having a rifle outside the Brooklyn home of journalist Masih Alinejad, a longtime critic of Iran‘s head-covering laws who has promoted videos of women violating those laws ther millions of social media followers.

Mehdiyev, 24, pleaded not guilty to one count of possessing a firearm with an obliterated serial number. He is being held at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center pending trial.

Iran‘s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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U.S. prosecutors in 2021 charged four Iranians alleged to be intelligence operatives for Tehran with plotting to kidnap a New York-based journalist and activist. While the target of that plot was not named, Reuters confirmed she was Alinejad.

Garland said the victim of the assassination plot and the attempted kidnapping were the same person.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday’s charges followed “a disturbing pattern of Iranian government-sponsored efforts to kill, torture, and intimidate into silence activists for speaking out for the fundamental rights and freedoms of Iranians around the world.”

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After the 2021 kidnapping plot failed, Amirov – a resident of Iran – sent information about the target to Omarov, a resident of the Czech Republic and Slovenia, prosecutors said on Friday. Omarov then sent those details to Mehdiyev, who lived in Yonkers, New York, prosecutors said.

Amirov and Omarov then arranged for Mehdiyev to get $30,000 in cash, which he used to buy an assault rifle and ammunition, prosecutors said. He then staked out the target’s neighborhood for several days in July 2022, but was stopped for a traffic violation and arrested when police found his weapon.

Amirov, 43, was arrested outside the United States, Garland said. He was taken into U.S. custody on Thursday and will have a pretrial hearing in federal court in Manhattan later on Friday. Omarov, 38, was arrested in the Czech Republic earlier this month, and the United States is seeking his extradition.

The United States in 2011 arrested one man it said was linked to an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington at the time at a restaurant he frequented in the capital.

U.S.-Iranian relations have been marked by animus in the decades since the former Iranian ruler and U.S. ally Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In recent years, the two nations have been at loggerheads over Iran‘s nuclear program, its support for proxy forces in the region, and its deadly clamp-down on unrest after the death of a young Iranian Kurdish woman in morality police custody.

Iran accuses Western powers of fomenting the unrest, which security forces have met with deadly violence.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Arshad Mohammed in Washingon. Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell)