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Justice Dept indicts 3 in international murder-for-hire plot targeting Iranian dissident living in Maryland

Washington — Three men stand accused of devising a murder-for-hire plot in the U.S. against an Iranian dissident and a woman with whom the dissident fled, according to a recently unsealed federal indictment.

Justice Department prosecutors alleged Naji Sharifi Zindashti, working from Iran, orchestrated the international scheme over two years, from 2020 to 2021. They said in the indictment that he was planning to send a team of hired gunmen to target the two unnamed victims, both of whom lived in Maryland, but Zindashti's plot was ultimately foiled. 

Beginning in December 2020, investigators say Zindashti started communicating with Damion Patrick John Ryan, 43, of Canada, about an opportunity to make money. The next month, Ryan — a member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club — reached out to Adam Richard Pearson, 29,  a Canadian national living illegally in Minnesota.

According to court documents, Pearson later messaged Ryan that he would tell his team of assembled gunmen to "Shoot [the victim] in the head a lot [to] make example."

"We gotta erase his head from his torso," he allegedly wrote. 

Communicating via an encrypted messaging app called SkyECC, Zindashti wrote to Ryan that he was "ready for the plot to move forward," investigators said, after the group of men agreed to be paid $350,000 for the job and an additional $20,000 in travel costs. 

An unnamed co-conspirator later allegedly exchanged a series of encrypted messages with Ryan, sharing pictures of the two targets and maps of their potential locations inside Maryland. And on March 8, 2021, Ryan was paid $20,000 to cover the travel expenses of the hired group. 

"To those in Iran who plot murders on U.S. soil and the criminal actors who work with them, let today's charges send a clear message: the Department of Justice will pursue you as long as it takes — and wherever you are — and deliver justice," Matt Olsen, head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, said in a statement Monday. 

All three defendants are charged with conspiracy and Pearson is accused of one count of illegal possession of a firearm. He and Ryan are currently detained in Canada on unrelated charges while Zindashti remains in Iran. 

The Justice Department has brought charges against several individuals from around the world — including from Iran — for allegedly targeting dissidents living inside the U.S. 

In January 2023, the Justice Department accused three men of plotting to assassinate an Iranian journalist living in the U.S. for her outspoken criticism of Iran's regime. The men, from the U.S., Iran and the Czech Republic, were charged with murder-for-hire in an indictment unsealed in federal court in New York.

Former President Donald Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, told CBS News' "60 Minutes" last year that he remains under Secret Service protection after Iran's intelligence service conspired to have him killed.

In November, an Indian national was charged with taking part in an alleged plot to kill a Sikh political activist living in the U.S. at the behest of an individual working for India's government. Nikhil Gupta was arrested in Europe over the summer and the extradition process is currently underway in the Czech Republic. 

The FBI arrested two defendants in April, 2023, on charges that they set up and operated an illegal Chinese police station in the middle of New York City in order to influence and intimidate dissidents critical of the Chinese government in the U.S. federal prosecutors allege the defendants established a secret police station under the direction of China's Ministry of Public Security in a Manhattan office building to quiet those who were outspoken against China.

Those charges followed the 2022 indictment of more than a dozen defendants, most of them Chinese officials, for allegedly participating in schemes to repatriate critics of the Chinese government, obtain secret information about a U.S. investigation into a Chinese telecom firm and recruit spies to act as agents against the U.S. 

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