US charges Indian citizen with conspiracy to assassinate Sikh advocate

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US prosecutors unveiled charges on Wednesday against an Indian national they say planned to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader on US soil under the direction of an Indian official.

The allegations echo a similar claim made by Canada -- over the June killing of a different Sikh separatist leader near Vancouver -- which led to a major diplomatic flareup between Ottawa and New Delhi.

The Justice Department unsealed murder-for-hire charges against Nikhil Gupta, 52, “in connection with his participation in a foiled plot to assassinate a US citizen” of Indian origin in New York City, it said in a statement.

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The person allegedly targeted in the killing “is a vocal critic of the Indian government and leads a US-based organization that advocates for the secession of Punjab,” a northern Indian state with a large population of Sikhs.

The Justice Department did not identify the person’s identity, though the Financial Times reported that the target was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a US and Canadian citizen who heads the group Sikhs for Justice.

The group is banned in India, and Pannun is designated as a “terrorist” by New Delhi.

An unidentified “Indian government agency employee who has variously described himself as a ‘Senior Field Officer’ with responsibilities in ‘Security Management’ and ‘Intelligence’“ hired Gupta to orchestrate the killing, the Justice Department said.

Gupta, who lives in India, was arrested by authorities in the Czech Republic under US extradition orders over the summer.

Canada-India row

The news comes after the White House said last week it was treating an alleged plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist on American soil with “utmost seriousness,” and had raised the issue with the Indian government.

The Financial Times reported that same day that US authorities had thwarted a conspiracy to kill Pannun.

The Justice Department said that Gupta was recruited into the effort in May 2023 and arrested June 30, after moving to hire a hitman who was actually an undercover US agent.

The Indian government employee, “agreed in dealings brokered by Gupta” to pay the undercover agent $100,000 for the killing, according to US authorities.

Canada and India had a major diplomatic row after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September linked New Delhi to the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, also a Sikh separatist, in June.

New Delhi called the Canadian allegations “absurd.”

The Justice Department said that after Nijjar’s killing, Gupta told undercover US officials that there was “now no need to wait” on killing the New York City target.

An Indian government spokesman on Wednesday said that the United States has “shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others.”

“We had also indicated that India takes such inputs seriously since they impinge on our national security interests,” the statement said, adding that a “high-level Enquiry Committee” was established on November 18 “to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter.”

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