NEW YORK (AP) — An Iranian opposition activist who U.S. authorities said was the target of two thwarted kidnapping or murder plots urged a federal judge in New York on Friday to hand a tough prison sentence to a woman who unwittingly funded one of the planned attacks.
Masih Alinejad, a onetime Iranian journalist, said her sense of safety has been shattered since authorities notified her in 2020 that she was being watched and that photographs were taken of her Brooklyn residence of 10 years. Since then, she has received U.S. government protection and has moved frequently between safe houses.
“This crime left its mark. Every day when I go out in the street, I have to look over my shoulders. … I miss my tree-lined street and my neighbors who treated me as one of their own,” Alinejad told Judge Ronnie Abrams as she asked her to set an example by sending 48-year-old Niloufar Bahadorifar, of Irvine, California, to prison for as long as possible.
Abrams did just that, announcing a four-year prison term after agreeing with prosecutors who urged her to impose a sentence between 46 and 57 months behind bars. She said she wanted to deter others who might aid the Iranian government in the targeting of individuals in the United States.
Abrams rejected a request by Bahadorifar’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, that his client be spared a prison term on the grounds that she, too, was a victim of a “dark, repressive, evil terror regime” that had left her so programmed to do as she was told that she fled Iran only to live for a time in Canada with a “fundamentalist, lunatic, abusive husband.”
Afterward, Bahadorifar addressed the court, telling Alinejad she was “humiliated to have been involved in any attempt to harm you, even if I was unaware of it.”
She added: “You are a hero to all Iranians. I am so sorry.”
Outside court, Alinejad was unimpressed.
“Even trying to use this to save herself? I’m not a hero,” she said. “My heroes are those people who got killed by the Iranian regime, and they never played victims like she did,”
Alinejad long has been targeted by Iran’s theocracy after fleeing the country following its disputed 2009 presidential election and crackdown.
She is a prominent figure on Farsi-language satellite channels abroad that critically view Iran and has worked as a contractor for U.S.-funded Voice of America’s Farsi-language network since 2015. She became a U.S. citizen in October 2019.
In December, Bahadorifar, a U.S. citizen originally from Iran, pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate U.S. economic sanctions on Iran by enabling access to the U.S. financial system for four Iranians who wanted to kidnap and silence Alinejad by taking her back to Tehran. Authorities said the Iranians used Bahadorifar as a go-between to pay an American private investigator.
The investigator was part of a plan by the would-be kidnappers, working for the government of Iran, to use private investigators in 2020 and 2021 to surveil, photograph, and video record Alinejad and others in her home on multiple occasions, prosecutors said.
Last summer, police arrested a man armed with a loaded assault-style rifle and dozens of rounds of ammunition near her Brooklyn home. Alinejad said a home security video had recorded the man outside her front door.
Since 2015, Bahadorifar had provided financial and other services, including access to the U.S. financial system and institutions, to various individuals from Iran, prosecutors said. Beginning in 2019, she structured cash deposits totaling at least $476,000 in more than 120 individual deposits, topping $10,000 only twice, authorities said.
At her December plea, Bahadorifar said she had sent funds to the private investigator on behalf of a government official in Iran who was a longtime family friend.
An Iranian intelligence officer and others were charged in New York in 2021 with trying to kidnap Alinejad. The Iranian officials have denied the charge.
The private investigator, who also was unaware his employers were Iranian agents, later cooperated with the FBI and was not charged.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacob Gutwillig said the case demonstrated “why sanction violations are gravely serious.”
After the sentence was announced, Lichtman said as he left the courthouse that he was disappointed, calling it “comical” to think Iranian terrorists were going to be deterred from other sinister plots because of his client’s fate.
Outside court, Alinejad said the word “safe” is a luxury for her.
“I’m not safe in America,” she said. “I cannot believe that this all happened to me. Three men were trying to kill me on U.S. soil.”
She added: “It’s not about me. It’s about the national security of the United States of America.”