The United States government on Wednesday announced that it has pressed “murder-for-hire” charges against an Indian national for allegedly being involved in a thwarted plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader in New York.
The statement from the US government did not mention the name of the separatist leader, but a report in the Financial Times on November 23 had identified him as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the chief of banned organisation, Sikhs for Justice.
Here are 10 major points from the indictment document:
- Indian national Nikhil Gupta, accused of “murder for hire”, had been recruited by an alleged Indian government employee, who “directed a plot to assassinate on US soil, an attorney and political activist who is a US citizen of Indian origin residing in New York City”, the US government announced.
- Gupta, 52, was arrested on June 30 by Czech authorities, the US government stated. The statement alleged that Gupta was an international narcotics and weapons trafficker. Meanwhile, the alleged Indian government employee, the charges say, is a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in “security management” and “intelligence”. The government employee has also previously served in the Central Reserve Police Force and having received “officer[’s] training” in “battle craft” and “weapons”, the US government said.
- The alleged plot to kill Pannun was foiled after Gupta contacted an individual in the US, who he believed was a “criminal associate”, but was in fact a “confidential source” working with the US Drug Enforcement Agency. The drug official then put Gupta in touch with a purported hitman, who was actually an “undercover officer”, the statment said.
- The government employee had asked Gupta to help in the murder plot “in exchange...[of] “securing the dismissal of a criminal case” against him. On May 12, in a phone conversation with Gupta, the government employee told him that the case against him “has already been taken care of” and that “nobody from Gujarat Police is calling”. On May 23, he again told Gupta that he had “spoke[n] with the boss...” about the case, that it was “all clear,” and “nobody will ever bother you again.” He also offered to arrange a meeting between Gupta and a deputy commissioner of police, the government statement claimed.
- After Gupta negotiated a deal for the alleged murder plot, the government employee agreed to pay the undercover officer, posing as a hitman, $100,000 for the killing. On or about June 9, 2023, Gupta and the government employee “arranged for an associate to deliver $15,000 in cash” to the undercover officer “as an advance payment for the murder”.
- The alleged government employee also provided personal information about the target, including his address in New York, phone number and day-to-day conduct to Gupta, which he in turn passed on to the undercover officer, the statement alleged. Gupta also asked the DEA agent, acting as a middleman between him and the purported hitman, to use a particular mobile phone app that records Global Positioning System, or GPS, coordinates and enables the user to take photographs.
- On June 6, Gupta asked the DEA agent posing as middleman to “calm down everything [for] 10 days” as “high level government officials” of US and India were to meet “over the ensuing weeks”, the statement noted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on a US visit from June 21 to June 23. In his phone conversations, Gupta told the DEA agent that the public profile of the target could lead to “political things”.
- However, after Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was murdered outside a gurudwara in Canada on June 18, Gupta allegedly told the US undercover agent that there was “now no need to wait”. Gupta also said that Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets”, the statement said. Moreover, immediately after the Nijjar murder, the Indian government official sent Gupta a video clip that showed Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle.
- The “murder for hire” charge against Gupta carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Another charge against him of “conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire” also carries the same maximum punishment.
- Hours before the US government announced the charges, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said that it had constituted a high-level inquiry committee to examine inputs from the United States about the alleged plot. A statement from the ministry said: “Government of India will take necessary follow-up action based on the findings of the Enquiry Committee”.