- Indian citizen Nikhil Gupta was “recruited” by an Indian government employee who directed assassination plot from back home, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
An Indian man has been arrested in connection with a foiled plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader in New York City. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said in a statement today that Nikhil Gupta, aka Nick, 52, was arrested and detained by Czech authorities in June this year, for plotting to assassinate the Sikh leader, unnamed in the documents, but identified by the Associated Press as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a leader of the Sikh separatist movement and an outspoken critic of the Indian government.
The attack on Pannun was planned by an Indian government official who “recruited” Gupta sometime in May this year “to orchestrate the assassination,” the press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said. Authorities allege that Gupta worked with an Indian government employee, identified in the documents as CC-1, who they say directed the assassination plot from India. The indictment added that CC-1 described himself as a “Senior Field Officer” with responsibilities in “Security Management” and “Intelligence.”
The press release described Gupta, “an Indian national who resides in India,” as “an associate of CC-1,” and was involved in “international narcotics and weapons trafficking.” The Indian government official told Gupta that in exchange, he would help with getting a criminal case in India against him dismissed, according to the indictment.
In furtherance of the assassination plot, Gupta reached out to someone he believed was a criminal associate for assistance with finding a hit man, the indictment said. However, the person he reached out to was a source working with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA source connected Gupta to the undercover DEA officer who pretended to be a hit man, the indictment said. A few days later, the Indian government employee gave Gupta Pannun’s information, including phone numbers, his day-to-day conduct, and his home address in New York City, the indictment said. The government employee offered to pay $100,000 for the assassination, the indictment further said.
The indictment, according to the New York Times, included a photo of a roll of hundred-dollar bills that it said was an advance payment for the New York job.
Gupta’s charges come a few months after the murder of Canadian Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia. Najjar was an associate of Pannun, the DOJ said, and “was a leader of the Sikh separatist movement and an outspoken critic of the Indian government.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had accused the Indian government of involvement in Nijjar’s killing.
A day after the killing, Gupta allegedly told the undercover DEA officer that Nijjar “was also the target” and in light of his murder, there was “now no need to wait” on killing Pannun, the DOJ said. Around the same time, the Gupta received a news article about Pannun from an Indian government employee and a message stating that the murder is now “a priority.”
Earlier this month, Pannun sent an email to The Hill “accusing India of using terrorism to halt his calls for an independent Sikh state known as Khalistan within India.” He wrote that “the foiled attempt on my life on American soil by the Indian agents is transnational terrorism which is a threat to the U.S. sovereignty, freedom of speech and democracy, so I will let the U.S. government respond to this threat.”
According to The New York Times, U.S. officials had “expressed concerns to the Indian government about the planned New York assassination days before the charges against Gupta were announced.” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement to The Hill last week that the U.S. government is “treating this issue with utmost seriousness,’ and has raised it with the Indian government “including at the senior-most levels.”
Meanwhile, the Indian government has instituted a “high-level inquiry committee” to look into U.S. government reports of the alleged involvement of Indians in a plot to target a Khalistani leader in the U.S., according to Indian media reports.
Gupta is charged with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. Each count carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
(Top photo, inset, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun).