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U.S. charges Indian national in alleged assassination plot of Sikh separatist in NYC

A government official says the U.S. has thwarted an alleged plot to kill Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on American soil.
Andrew Harnik
A government official says the U.S. has thwarted an alleged plot to kill Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on American soil.

Updated November 29, 2023 at 5:27 PM ET

The Justice Department announced charges Wednesday against an Indian national for allegedly taking part in a murder-for-hire scheme on U.S. soil orchestrated by an Indian government employee. The alleged plan was to assassinate an American citizen who is a leader in the Sikh separatist movement.

The indictment, unsealed in federal court in Manhattan, says the plot was foiled by U.S. law enforcement. But the allegations come just months after Canada accused Indian government agents of murdering a Sikh community leader in British Columbia, raising fresh questions about India's actions abroad and potentially complicating Washington's relationship with New Delhi.

Court papers do not identify the intended victim, but Gurpatwant Singh Pannum, the general counsel for Sikhs for Justice, said in a statement on X that he was the target.

The man charged with plotting to kill him is 52-year-old Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national and resident who court papers say was previously involved in international narcotics and weapons trafficking. He faces one count of murder for hire, and one count of murder-for-hire conspiracy.

American officials say Gupta was arrested in June in the Czech Republic at the U.S.'s request. Gupta is still in the Czech Republic pending his extradition.

Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said the Biden administration has "engaged in direct conversations with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concern."

She said India indicated they "were taking this seriously and would investigate," adding that the U.S. is proving information to aid India's internal investigation.

CIA Director Bill Burns and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had both discussed the alleged plot with their Indian counterparts in recent months and pressed them to hold those responsible accountable, according to a senior administration official. President Biden also raised the matter directly with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when they met at the Group of 20 summit.

There was no immediate comment from the Indian government about the indictment and its allegations.

But a spokesperson for India's Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that in earlier discussions, the U.S. had "shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorist and others."

"We had also indicated that India takes such inputs seriously since they impinge on our national security interests as well, and relevant departments were already examining the issue," the statement continued, adding that India has set up a "high-level enquiry" to look into the matter.

Details in the indictment

While Gupta is the only one charged in the case, the indictment says the plot was directed by an Indian government employee based in India only identified as CC-1. Court papers say the individual has described himself or herself as a "Senior Field Officer" with "intelligence" responsibilities.

According to the indictment, the Indian government employee recruited Gupta in May 2023 to orchestrate the plot, offering to secure the dismissal of a criminal case against Gupta in India in return.

Gupta agreed, court papers say, and then proceeded to contact an individual to help arrange a hitman in the U.S. to carry out the murder. Unbeknownst to Gupta, the individual he contacted was in fact a confidential source for American law enforcement. That individual, who is not identified in the document, introduced Gupta to someone he said was a hitman but was in fact an undercover DEA officer.

Court papers say Gupta then agreed to pay the undercover agent $100,000 for the murder, and arranged for a $15,000 cash down payment.

Shortly after that, the Indian government employee allegedly gave Gupta details on the intended target, including the victim's home address, phone numbers and details on their daily routine.

Gupta allegedly told the purported hitman to carry out the murder as soon as possible, but not to do so around the time of high-level meetings between U.S. and Indian officials.

The indictment notes that on June 18, masked gunmen murdered Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia, Canada. Nijjar, it says, was an associate of Gupta's intended target.

Just hours after Nijjar's murder, court papers say, the Indian government employee sent Gupta a video clip that showed Nijjar's bloody body, as well as a message with the street address of Gupta's intended target in New York City.

Less than two weeks later, Czech authorities arrested Gupta.

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Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.