The Central Criminal Court of England sentenced a man arrested for gathering information on Iran International's London headquarters to 3.5 years behind bars.
Originally from Chechnya but residing in Austria, Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev (Mohammad-Hussein Dovtaev) was detained at Chiswick Business Park by officers from London’s Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Command in February. He was charged with a single count of attempting to collect information "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism." The jury court returned a guilty verdict for him on Thursday.
Dovtaev is required to serve two-thirds of his sentence of three years and six months. The 10 months he has already spent in custody since his arrest will also be counted as part of his jail term.
“This trial was a reminder of the threats journalists and news organizations face. Journalism is under attack across the world from those who seek to suppress media freedom,” Iran International said in a statement after the verdict was announced. “We will not be cowed by threats. Our journalists will continue to provide the independent, uncensored news the people of Iran deserve,” stated the news and television network, which is the the most viewed foreign-based channel in Iran in the absence of free media in the country.
During the course of the trial, the police also released footage of Dovtaev gathering information about the security arrangements around the office building that housed Iran International and recording videos of the area. The police also released footage of the moment he was arrested.
Prosecutors said Dovtaev covertly filmed material on his phone in order to "identify vulnerabilities" in the media company's security which could be exploited by others.
Dovtaev’s botched operation was only a tip of the iceberg of Islamic Republic’s attempts to silence Iran International. Earlier in the week, UK’s ITV revealed that the IRGC was plotting to assassinate two Iran International television anchors in London in 2022 amid Iranian anti-government protests. Iranian spies offered a people-smuggler $200,000 to target the Iran International site with a car bomb.
Due to the the difficulty of passing the building's security, the initial plan was a car bomb but later was changed to assassination of two anchors while there were discussions of killing several directors of the channel. The plot was foiled because the man hired to do the job turned out to be a ‘double-agent’ working for a western intelligence agency. He would relay all the information to his handler and has now shared some details with ITV. Based on irrefutable evidence – seen and verified by ITV and multiple officials – the plot was commissioned and signed off by Mohammad Reza Ansari, the IRGC commander in charge of assassinations outside Iran. Ansari is the ‘mastermind’ behind failed plots to assassinate former US officials Mike Pompeo and John Bolton – for which he was sanctioned by the US treasury.
In a statement, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the Islamic Republic's "shocking tactics used by Iran to silence critical voices," calling on the UK government to do everything it can to hold Iran to account and ensure the safety of Iranian journalists.
"Iran will stop at nothing to intimidate journalists, abroad just as at home. It is good news that these particular plots were foiled, but they won’t be the last. The UK government must step up efforts to stop Iran’s brazen attacks and ensure adequate safeguards are in place to protect journalists,” said Fiona O'Brien, the RSF UK Bureau Director.
Prosecutor Nicholas de la Poer told London's Old Bailey that Iran International became a target for reprisals following its reporting on the death in custody of Mahsa Amini in Iran last year and subsequent protests in the country. Iran's minister of intelligence later declared Iran International a terrorist organization, de la Poer said, which meant its employees "became targets for violent reprisals".
In November 2022, Volant Media, the parent company of Iran International, said that two of its journalists had been notified of direct threats. Following the significant escalation in Iranian state-backed threats and advice from the London Metropolitan Police, Iran International TV announced in February that it reluctantly and temporarily closed its London studios and moved broadcasting to Washington DC. After months of hiatus in broadcasting from the UK, the network relaunched operations from a new London building in September.
According to Iran’s Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib, the Islamic Republic regards Iran International as “a terrorist organization.” He has stated that its staff and anyone affiliated with the channel will be pursued by the Ministry of Intelligence all over the globe, reiterating threats to “punish all those” who had a role in popular protests against the regime, wherever they might be.
Since its inception, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has been engaged in plots against Iranian opposition in exile. Some attempts have been more successful than the others, but the regime has never ceased threatening and targeting those who dare speak against it, even those ostensibly safe in western Europe or the United States.