Jan 30, 2023

Garland Announces Charges Against Three Men in Iran-Backed Plot to Kill Author and Activist Transcript

Garland Announces Charges Against Three Men in Iran-Backed Plot to Kill Author and Activist Transcript
RevBlogTranscriptsAssassinationGarland Announces Charges Against Three Men in Iran-Backed Plot to Kill Author and Activist Transcript

The Department of Justice unveiled stunning details into an Iran-backed attempt to assassinate an American journalist at her Brooklyn home last year. Read the transcript here.

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Merrick Garland (00:06):

Good morning. This morning a federal court in New York unveiled an indictment charging three individuals for their roles in a conspiracy to assassinate a United States citizen. These charges arise out of an ongoing investigation into the government of Iran’s efforts to assassinate on U.S. soil a journalist, author, and human rights activist who is a U.S. citizen of Iranian origin. All three defendants are currently in custody.

In July of last year, one of the defendant’s, Khalid Mehdiyev, was found with an assault rifle, two ammunition magazines, and approximately 66 rounds of ammunition not far from the victim’s home in Brooklyn, New York. He was arrested by NYPD officers and charged with a federal firearms offense. As detailed in the superseding indictment unsealed today, Mehdiyev was not acting alone. We allege that Mehdiyev and his co-conspirators, Polad Omarov and Rafat Amirov, are members of an Eastern European criminal organization with ties to Iran.

As alleged in the indictment, the government Iran has previously targeted dissidents around the world, including the victim, who oppose the regime’s violations of human rights. And as outlined in this and prior indictments, the victim in this case has long been a target of the Iranian government.

In 2021, we charged an Iranian intelligence officer and three Iranian intelligence assets with plotting to kidnap the victim from within the United States for rendition to Iran and likely execution in order to silence the victim. The government of Iran has continued to target the victim since then.

The indictment unsealed today alleges that individuals in Iran tasked defendant Amirov with targeting the victim in a murder-for-hire plot. Amirov, who resided in Iran, is a leader of the Eastern European criminal organization. We allege that Amirov then directed defendant Omarov, another leader of the organization, who in turn directed defendant Mehdiyev, a member of the organization, to carry out the plot. Omarov resided in Eastern Europe. Mehdiyev was living in the United States.

As alleged in the indictment, after receiving the directive from Amirov, Omarov sent Mehdiyev photographs of the victim and the victim’s home as well as the victim’s address. Mehdiyev traveled to the victim’s residence where he took photos and video that he sent back to Omarov. Omarov forwarded the photos and video back up the chain to Amirov. Amirov then arranged a payment of $30,000 to Mehdiyev to buy an assault rifle and carry out the murder.

Mehdiyev acquired an AK-47 style assault rifle with an obliterated serial number. He then traveled repeatedly to surveil the victim and the victim’s household members at the victim’s residence. During those surveillance missions, Mehdiyev provided reports on the victim’s activities to Omarov, which Omarov shared with Amirov. On one morning, Omarov sent Mehdiyev a message asking where he was. Mehdiyev responded, “At the crime scene.” Omarov responded, “Okay. You are a man.”

On the day he was arrested, Mehdiyev sent Omarov a video recording from inside his car with a caption stating, “We are ready.” In the video, Mehdiyev pulled open the flap of a suitcase displaying the assault rifle. Omarov forwarded the video to Amirov, who replied that Mehdiyev should “keep the car clean.”

The indictment alleges that the defendants scheme to find ways to lure the victim out of the residence to carry out the assassination. But their plot was disrupted, and all of the defendants will now stand trial in the United States for their alleged crimes. Mehdiyev has been detained since his arrest last July. Omarov is currently in the custody of our foreign partners pending extradition to the United States. And Amirov, the defendant who lived in Iran, is now in U.S. custody and will be presented later today in court. I am grateful to the prosecutors, agents and staff of DOJ’s National Security Division, the FBI, and the Southern District of New York for their excellent work on this case.

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. This activity posed such a threat to the government of Iran that the Chief Judge of Iran’s Revolutionary Courts warned that anyone who sent videos to the victim criticizing the regime would be sentenced to prison, especially videos contrary to laws mandating that women and girls wear head coverings in public.

In the United States of America, our system of laws protects our citizens in the peaceful exercise of their constitutional and civil rights. 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. We will stop at nothing to identify, find, and bring to justice those who endanger the safety of the American people. I will now turn the podium over to the Deputy Attorney General.

Lisa (06:45):

Good morning. Thank you, Mr. Attorney General. Today’s indictment exposes a dangerous menace to national security, a double threat posed by a vicious transnational crime group operating from what it thought was the safe haven of a rogue nation. That rogue nation is the Islamic Republic of Iran, an all-too-familiar repeat violator of human rights.

This case began with our investigation of Iran’s efforts to project power and to extend its tentacles of oppression to American shores through the targeting of an Iranian American journalist who has stood up to the brutal regime, shining a light on Iran’s abuse of human rights and women’s rights. But this time it was a newer actor who brought the campaign of violence to America, an Eastern European criminal organization made up of self-described ogru or thieves who engaged in extortion and kidnapping and, in this case, murder for hire. The charges unsealed today show how organized crime in pursuit of profits and operating from a rogue nation can pose a grave threat to our national security and to the freedoms we hold dear.

Increasingly, we see the blending of national security and criminal threats as rogue nations and criminal organizations make common cause and share capabilities. From ransomware groups targeting critical infrastructure to facilitators of sanctions evasion, these criminal actors embolden our enemies and threaten our national security, and all too often they seek refuge in countries they believe will protect and empower them, in this case, Iran.

While they may think that they’re out of reach, our agents and prosecutors are uniquely equipped to combat this double threat with both law enforcement and national security tools. This case also highlights the evolving threat and the increasingly brazen conduct emanating from Iran. I’ve spoken before about the threat Iran poses to our homeland through its networks and its proxies. In the last year, we have charged members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, with a plot to murder the former U.S. National Security Advisor. We’ve indicted Iranian hackers for targeting utility companies and other critical infrastructure. And we’ve called out Iran for its destructive cyberattack that crippled a partner government’s computer networks. We will not tolerate this belligerent and criminal conduct. Instead, we will hold accountable those who would bring Iran’s campaign of violence to our shores. We will hold accountable those who seek to silence voices for human rights and women’s rights.

The charges announced today expose a dangerous and ultimately thwarted plot to export violent oppression to America. But today we have demonstrated the strength and the reach of the Department of Justice and the rule of law. Today’s actions show that the United States will zealously protect freedom and hold accountable all those who would use it and to use violence to undermine it. And now I’ll turn the podium over to Director Wray.

Christopher Wray (10:42):

Thank you, Lisa. Today’s unsealing shows that just one year after the FBI and our partners disrupted an Iranian group’s attempt to silence an American journalist on U.S. soil, the same person was targeted for assassination again by a group with ties to Iran. Fortunately, their plot failed because we didn’t.

Through the extraordinary work of FBI agents and investigators working with partners like the NYPD, we successfully disrupted this heinous murder-for-hire plot. The arrest announced today demonstrates our commitment to follow the facts wherever they lead, to work our way up to the leaders of criminal plots like this one even after they’ve been disrupted, and then to use our long reach to bring those responsible here to the United States to face justice.

The conduct charged in today’s case shows just how far Iranian actors are willing to go to silence critics of the Iranian regime, even attempting an assassination right here in the United States. But looking at the threat from Iran more broadly, we’ve seen the Iranian regime become more aggressive and more brazen across vectors. In just the past couple of years, actors associated with Iran have launched a ransomware attack against a children’s hospital in New England, attempted to assassinate the former U.S. National Security Advisor on U.S. soil, and now plotted to silence a U.S. citizen, a journalist who publicized the Iranian government’s human rights abuses right smack in the middle of New York City. If that doesn’t show how serious the threat from Iran is to Americans right here in America, I don’t know what is.

Over the past few years, Iranian intelligence and security services working with their proxies have increased the use of transnational repression tactics to target political opponents. Their tactics include assassination and kidnapping plots, surveillance, cyber operations, the abuse of international law enforcement tools, and the intimidation of family and friends back in Iran, really any means of harassment they can conceive of. And the Iranian government’s efforts to silence its critics aren’t confined to the borders of Iran. Iran is willing to engage in violent repression all over the world, including right here in the United States, violating both our sovereignty and international norms.

In response, the FBI is, of course, working with our traditional intelligence and law enforcement partners, but we’re also bringing others to the fight, raising awareness and forging partnerships with the Iranian American community, universities and academia, state and local governments, and foreign partners around the world. Today, every one of those partners is more awake and alert to the threat and committed to calling out the Iranian government for violating the rule of law. As the arrests and indictment announced today show, on top of calling attention to the threat of Iranian transnational repression, we will continue to use every tool at our disposal to hunt down those who violate our laws and bring them to justice.

Now I’ll turn it over to Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen to talk more about our work countering threats from Iran and other hostile nation states.

Matt Olsen (14:30):

Good morning. This murder-for-hire plot directed against a prominent critic of the Iranian regime is yet another example of the violent tactics used to silence those who speak out for the freedoms and safety of people around the world. This is not the first time the department has disrupted an Iran-based plot against this victim. Last year, DOJ indicted four individuals connected to Iranian intelligence with a kidnapping conspiracy aimed at forcibly returning the victim to Iran. And these charges are just the latest example of individuals in Iran directing deadly violence on U.S. soil. Last year, as you’ve heard, DOJ charged a member of the Iranian IRGC with an attempt to assassinate the former U.S. National Security Advisor.

We have the solemn duty to protect the American people from hostile foreign actors who would seek to harm them. Increasingly, authoritarian regimes engage in and support wide-ranging efforts to undermine our core values and the rule of law. We face an alarming rise in plots emanating from Iran, China, Russia, and elsewhere targeting people in the United States, often using criminal proxies and cutouts.

The Department of Justice remains steadfast in our determination to defend our fundamental American values of freedom of expression in the face of all forms of transnational repression. So to foreign actors who plot violence on our soil believing they are out of our reach, know that we will pursue you wherever you may be. The lead defendant in this case was a made member of a criminal organization living in Iran who believed he could get away with plotting to kill an American in New York City. Now, he will face justice in a U.S. courtroom, and this is because of the dedication and partnership of the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, and the National Security Division who are working every day to defend our nation’s security. Thank you.

Speaker 5 (16:42):

Good morning. We are here today because of the extraordinary work of career public servants in the Southern District of New York, the National Security Division, and the FBI. It is because of their hard work that we’ve been able to expose this assassination plot and to shine the light on the government of Iran’s efforts to execute an American citizen for the so-called crime of criticizing the Iranian regime.

The allegations in the indictment make plain what this was, a plot directed and tasked from within Iran that enlisted members of an Eastern European organized crime group to kill a U.S. citizen, to finish what a high-ranking Iranian intelligence officer and three assets previously failed to do when my office charged them in 2021, to assassinate a U.S. citizen who was exercising the right, the constitutional right to speak out against the Iranian regime.

Let me be clear. In the United States, free speech is a hallmark of our Constitution and Iran, it marks you for death. We will safeguard our citizens and their right to free expression. And to those who would seek to violently repress and silence members of our community, let me say this, we are watching, we will find you, and we will bring you to justice.

I want to thank the FBI’s leadership, especially the leadership in the New York Field Office Counterintelligence Division and its Iranian Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation squad for its years-long effort in this case. The vision, commitment, and drive of the case agents up through the leadership of the FBI has been truly remarkable. We are so grateful and could not have gotten to this point without the support of countless individuals across the Department of Justice who worked around the clock to make this case possible. And in particular, I’d like to thank our colleagues and partners at the Department’s National Security Division and the Office of International Affairs.

And I also want to thank and commend the career prosecutors handling the case from my office, the Southern District of New York, Michael Lockard, Matthew Hellman, Jacob Gutwillig, and their supervisors, George Turner and Amanda Houle, the chiefs of our office’s National Security and International Narcotics Unit. Thank you.

Speaker 6 (19:03):


Kevin (19:11):

For the AG or the FBI Director, whoever would like to address this.

Merrick Garland (19:17):

Ask the question first and I’ll figure out if you’d like.

Kevin (19:19):

Two questions. Can any of you elaborate a little bit about how these actors were working at the direction of the Iranian regime given the somewhat direct connections in the last case? And the second question is in wake of the McGonigal case, can any of you address what assessments are being done or being planned to determine whether Mr. McGonigal’s actions exposed any internal vulnerabilities?

Merrick Garland (19:52):

I’ll take a stab at both, and then I’ll pass on to the Director as well. So on the first question, this is now an indicted case, so we’re limited to what we can say about it beyond the four corners of the indictment. The indictment charges that individuals in Iran tasked Mr. Amirov, who is living in Iran, to carry out this murder-for-hire conspiracy, that he gave his instructions from Iran to Omarov. And as we have also noted in a previous indictment, Iran had been attempting to assassinate this victim. That’s all we can say at this point.

Respect to the McGonigal matter, that too is a ongoing criminal matter since there’s also been an indictment. The one thing I will say about that, and not with reference only to that case or specifically, every person in the Justice Department and every person, really every federal employee takes the same oath that I have personally repeatedly taken to defend and support the Constitution of the United States and to well and faithfully discharge the duties of our offices. We take that oath seriously, and we will make sure that anyone who doesn’t fulfill that oath is held accountable. At this point, I’d be happy to turn it over to the Director.

Christopher Wray (21:19):

Yeah, I welcome the question. I guess there’s some important things that I think are getting lost here with respect to that case. We’re talking about a guy who’s been gone from the FBI for well over four years now, and it’s the FBI that initiated this investigation. It’s the FBI and our agents that painstakingly and methodically put the case together against him, and it’s the FBI that arrested him.

The conduct that he engaged in I think is very accurately and comprehensively described in the indictment, and I would refer you to that. But I will tell you that our agents over the past few years methodically and professionally put together the kind of case that you would expect them to and took all of the steps that you would expect them to in a case like this. And I will tell you that the conduct described in that indictment is, in my view, not remotely representative of what I see from the men and women of the FBI every single day, people trying to do their jobs in the right way.

And what I think the charges in that case demonstrate is the FBI’s willingness as an organization to shine a bright light on conduct that is totally unacceptable, including when it happens from one of our own people and to hold those people accountable. And that to me is in the best traditions of the FBI. So I think that’s what that case summarizes.

Speaker 6 (22:43):


Rob (22:48):

Either for the Attorney General or for the FBI Director. Can either of you speak to how the defendant living in Iran was taken into custody in the United States? And then secondly, just as the nation prepares for the release of the Nichols video today, have either of you seen the video or been briefed on it? What’s your reaction to it? And what more can the federal government do to prevent instances like this from happening again?

Merrick Garland (23:12):

Say the first question again. Sorry.

Rob (23:14):

No, no worries. A lot of questions, apologies. The first question was the Iranian defendant, how did he get into this country?

Merrick Garland (23:20):

Yeah. All we can say is that he was lawfully arrested outside the United States and he is now in the custody of the United States in New York. And on the second question, I have not seen the video, but I have been briefed on that video. It is deeply disturbing, let me say horrific from the descriptions I’ve been given. I want to give my deepest condolences to Tyre Nichols family. I can’t imagine the feelings that parents must feel under these circumstances.

The United States Attorney has met personally with the family to express department’s condolences and express his own. We have opened last week a federal civil rights investigation under the Color of Law Statute, which we will be investigating. We have been working in support of the state and local law enforcement in this matter, and we will continue to do so.

I do want to say, and I want to repeat what the family has said, that expressions of concern when people see this video, we urge that they be peaceful and nonviolent. That’s what the family has urged, and that, of course, is what the Justice Department urges as well.

Speaker 6 (24:45):

All right. Alan.

Alan (24:49):

Anything you can detail more about this Eastern European criminal organization in Iran? Taking him out as the leader, does that effectively decapitate the organization, or is this something you expect to see more criminal activity from them? And then on a second question, yesterday from the podium, you spoke about how you expect special counsels appointed in this department to live up to the highest traditions of the Justice Department. Yesterday, the New York Times had a very lengthy article detailing some extraordinary actions taken by Special Counsel John Durham during his investigation into the origins of the Russian investigation. I wonder, do you believe that John Durham has lived up to the highest traditions of the Justice Department, and do you still plan to make public his entire report?

Merrick Garland (25:32):

So on the second question, I can’t comment on any pending special counsel investigation. I will repeat what I said before the committee upon my nomination that I do plan to make available Mr. Durham’s report when it’s completed to the extent that our disclosures are consistent with our obligations under other statutes. On the question about the criminal organization, who here would be best fit to answer that question?

Christopher Wray (26:06):

I think there’s a limit to how much I can say on that other than to make the point, which I think a couple people have already made here, which is the investigation is ongoing and that all we can really discuss right now are the individuals charged today. But this is an ongoing effort. And in some ways, the great work by the Southern District of New York and our New York Field Office together shows that we’re going to keep at it. And so if there are other people involved in the organization who think that this is the end of it, they better think twice.

Speaker 6 (26:36):

All right. [inaudible 00:26:37].

Speaker 10 (26:37):

We heard from Attorney General Garland about the Memphis tape. If I could ask Director Wray or… Oh, I’m sorry.

Merrick Garland (26:43):

No, that’s okay.

Speaker 10 (26:44):

I don’t want to disrespect the Attorney General.

Merrick Garland (26:46):

Not at all. I’m happy to let somebody else answer the questions today.

Speaker 10 (26:47):

Or the Deputy Attorney General. Have either of you seen the tape, and if you have, what are your reactions, and what is your message to the American people about is this department ready should there be mass protests? Is the FBI ready, is DOJ ready should things get out of control this weekend?

Merrick Garland (27:05):

Yeah, I think I can answer all those questions. I don’t think anybody’s seen the tape.

Christopher Wray (27:08):

I have.

Merrick Garland (27:08):

In that case.

Christopher Wray (27:12):

Yes. What happened in Memphis is obviously tragic. I have seen the video myself, and I will tell you I was appalled. I’m struggling to find a stronger word, but I will just tell you I was appalled. The FBI working with the Justice Department takes great pride in our Color of Law investigations, and we will pursue, as has already been announced, an investigation here. And we’ll do it professionally without fear or favor by the book as I think is expected of us.

As far as preparation, all of our field offices have been alerted to work closely with their state and local partners, including in particular, of course, in Memphis in the event of something getting out of hand. But I would just add my voice to the Attorney General’s and to the families to whom my heart goes out, that there’s a right way and a wrong way in this country to express being upset or angry about something. And we need to make sure that if there is that sentiment expressed here, it’s done in the right way.

Speaker 6 (28:16):

Thank you all.

Speaker 10 (28:16):

Thank you.

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