Iran: Alleged Plot to Kidnap Prominent Dissident in US

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Journalist and author Masih Alinejad speaks at a conference in New York City, on October 16, 2018.
© 2018 Larry Busacca/Getty Images

(New York) – The United States Justice Department’s indictment of four Iranian nationals allegedly plotting to kidnap an Iranian dissident journalist living in New York City heightens concerns about Iranian efforts to target Iranian activists abroad, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 13, 2021, a New York federal court unsealed an indictment against four Iranian men who allegedly “conspired to kidnap a Brooklyn journalist, author and human rights activist for mobilizing public opinion in Iran and around the world to bring about changes to the regime’s laws and practices.” According to multiple sources, including the activist herself, the dissident journalist Masih Alinejad was the target of the alleged kidnapping.

“For decades Iranian authorities have deployed vicious tactics to harass, intimidate, and harm Iranian activists living abroad,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iran’s security agencies have now allegedly attempted to kidnap another high-profile dissident to dragoon back to Iran and face serious abuses.”

In 2014, Alinejad founded the campaign “My Stealthy Freedom,” which advocates against women being forced to wear the compulsory hijab in public in Iran. She has been the target of harassment and intimidation by various Iranian state agencies, including the state broadcasting agency. Alinejad told the media that Iranian authorities have repeatedly harassed her family, pressuring them to convince her to travel to countries neighboring Iran.

On July 16, 2020, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that an Iranian court had sentenced Ali Alinejad, Alinejad’s brother, to five years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security,” two years for “insulting the Supreme Leader,” and one year for “propaganda against the state.” Alinejad’s lawyer said that a portion of Ali Alinejad’s hearing was focused on his sister’s activities.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected the US Justice Department’s allegations as “baseless and ridiculous,” Reuters reported.

Over the past two years, Iranian authorities have detained at least three foreign-based dissidents. On October 14, 2019, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Intelligence Organization issued a statement saying that it had arrested Rouholllah Zam, a prominent dissident and journalist who had been living in Paris. The statement did not specify where he was arrested, but sources with close knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that he was most likely arrested in Iraq and transferred to Iran. After a grossly unfair trial, Zam was executed in December 2020.

Jamshid Sharmand, an Iranian-German dual national, and Hamid Chaab, an Iranian-Swedish dual national, both dissidents, are currently detained in Iran and are believed to have been taken into custody outside the country.

“However the Alinejad case plays out, Iranian authorities are doubtlessly determined to silence dissent and spread fear among outspoken critics outside the country,” Page said.