Federal prosecutors in the United States on Wednesday (November 29) charged an Indian national for his involvement in a failed assassination attempt on Khalistani leader and designated terrorist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on American soil. The man has been identified as the 52-year-old Nikhil Gupta.
Gupta has been charged with murder-on-hire, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, said US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Matthew G Olsen. Authorities say that Gupta agreed to pay $100,000 to kill Pannun, who is living in New York.
"On or about June 9, 2023, CC-1 and GUPTA arranged for an associate to deliver $15,000 in cash to the UC in Manhattan, New York, as an advance payment for the murder," according to the charges. The US citizen has not been named, but it points towards Pannun, after reports emerged that the US thwarted a plan aimed towards his assassination and warned India over concerns that it was involved in the plot.
Who is Nikhil Gupta and what did he do?
According to the US Department of Justice, Gupta is an Indian national and was an associate of CC-1, who hired Gupta to carry out the task. Not much is known yet about him, except that he was arrested and detained by Czech authorities on June 30 this year "pursuant to the bilateral extradition treaty between the United States and the Czech Republic".
The DoJ said that the individual who hired Gupta was working with others in India and elsewhere to direct a plot to assassinate a US citizen of Indian origin residing in New York. The DoJ refers to the target as the 'Victim', pointing towards Khalistani leader Pannun.
Gupta allegedly described his involvement in international narcotics and weapons trafficking in his communications with CC-1 and others. He was recruited by CC-1 to orchestrate the assassination of the 'victim', who has publicly called for all of Punjab to secede from India and establish a Sikh sovereign state called Khalistan, said the department.
How was the plan foiled?
According to the DoJ, Gupta contacted an individual whom he believed to be a criminal associate, but was actually a confidential source working with US law enforcement (the CS), for assistance in contracting a hitman to murdering the victim in New York. The undercover agent introduced Gupta to a purported hitman, who was also an undercover US law enforcement officer.
Gupta agreed to pay the 'hitman' a sum of $100,000 to murder the victim. On June 30, when CC-1 provided Gupta with personal information and details about the victim, the latter directed the undercover officer to murder him but also instructed the officer to not commit the murder "around the time of anticipated engagements scheduled to occur in the ensuing weeks between high-level US and Indian government officials".
"On or about June 18, masked gunmen murdered Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia, Canada. Nijjar was an associate of the Victim, and like the Victim, was a leader of the Sikh separatist movement and an outspoken critic of the Indian government. On or about June 19, the day after the Nijjar murder, Gupta told the UC that Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets.” Gupta added that, in light of Nijjar’s murder, there was “now no need to wait” on killing the Victim," said the Department of Justice.
Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic at the request of the US in connection with his participation in the plot to murder the individual. It remains unclear when Gupta might be extradited to the US.
What did the prosecutors say?
"As alleged, the defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a US citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India," US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said in a statement.
Williams further said that his Office and its partners neutralised this “deadly and outrageous threat. We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate US citizens on US soil, and stand ready to investigate, thwart, and prosecute anyone who seeks to harm and silence Americans here or abroad.”
India sets up high-level committee
The development came after the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on Wednesday said that it has constituted a high-level enquiry committee to look into all relevant aspects regarding the concerns shared by the United States on the nexus between organised criminals, terrorists, gun runners and others.
"In this context, it is informed that on 18 November 2023, the Government of India constituted a high-level enquiry committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter," said MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, adding that the Indian government will take 'necessary follow-up action' based on the findings of the committee.
Bagchi further said that the US shared those inputs on the criminal nexus during discussions on bilateral security cooperation and said that "India takes such inputs seriously since they impinge on our national security interests".
(with inputs from agencies)