New York Times Writer Charged as Iranian Agent Is Called ‘Foolish’ by Federal Judge
The New York Times opinion writer accused of serving as an unregistered, paid foreign agent of Iran may have a legal defense, the federal judge presiding over the criminal case suggested in a pre-trial hearing this week.
The defense, Judge Edward Korman said, related to whether the writer, Kaveh Afrasiabi, was aware that he was required by law to register as a foreign agent.
“If you have a defense here, it’s mens rea,” Korman said, using the Latin term, literally “guilty mind,” that defines criminal intent. To win a criminal conviction, prosecutors often must prove a defendant had such intent. Afrasiabi has pleaded not guilty.
Korman’s comment came as he urged Afrasiabi to cease representing himself and to instead accept the legal services of Deirdre Von Dornum, a federal defender who has been serving as standby counsel during the videoconference court appearances in the case.
“You have a great lawyer who is right on the screen, who you don’t want,” Korman advised Afrasiabi. “You really need a good lawyer. If you don’t want her, you are making a big mistake.”
In the May 4 status conference, Judge Korman agreed to modify the terms of Afrasiabi’s confinement, from home detention to a curfew from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m, subject to GPS monitoring.
Von Dornum said the chance of Afrasiabi “running away from this case is zero,” as the writer has thrown himself into the effort of energetically defending himself in court.
That was on display in full force in the status conference this week, with Afrasiabi denouncing what he called “the absurdity of the charges against me,” and pronouncing himself “committed to the cause of truth, peace, and reconciliation.”
“I’ve been a pioneering intellectual,” Afrasiabi said, citing 20 books he has authored and “hundreds of opinion articles” in the nation’s top periodicals, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.
Korman appeared unimpressed. “Everything you just went through is largely irrelevant,” the judge said.
The judge advised Afrasiabi to clam up. “The best advice that Ms. Von Dornum could give you is to say nothing,” Korman said. Earlier Korman told Afrasiabi, “you’ve made a lot of foolish admissions, but that doesn’t matter.”
It may have been a reference to Afrasiabi’s acknowledgment, in an email to The Algemeiner soon after his arrest in January 2020, that he received checks from the Iranian UN Mission’s account. “It never occurred to me that I was doing anything illegal,” Afrasiabi said at the time, which may bear on the mens rea defense strategy floated by Judge Korman.
The judge scheduled the next status conference in the case for July 14. The longer a trial is delayed, the more time there is for negotiations between Iran and the US over a nuclear deal and sanctions relief. There are some press reports that a prisoner swap is part of those negotiations, though the US government has denied those reports. Afrasiabi has lived in the US for decades.
The New York Times published more than a dozen opinion articles and letters to the editor by Afrasiabi. They remain available on its website with no notification to readers that Afrasiabi was being paid by Iran. The Times has not published any news article or otherwise informed its readers about the federal criminal case against Afrasiabi.
The paper has been sharply critical of Facebook and Twitter for publishing unlabeled posts by Russian agents about US political issues, denouncing it in an editorial as “unprecedented foreign invasion of American democracy.” And a front-page Times news article over the weekend offered breathless innuendo about undue Swiss influence on US politics. When it comes to Iranian influence and its own columns, however, the Times seems to apply a different, and much less stringent, standard.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.