Federal prosecutors in the United States have accused an Indian government official of directing a plot to murder Khalistani terrorist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on American soil. On Thursday, the US Justice Department brought charges against another Indian man, Nikhil Gupta, for his alleged role in the foiled killing plot.
According to an indictment filed in a Manhattan court, Nikhil Gupta aka "Nick", 52, colluded with the Indian government agency employee in a plan to murder Pannun, a US citizen and founder of the Khalistani outfit, Sikhs for Justice.
"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," Damian Williams, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.The development follows a Financial Times report last week that said that US authorities had thwarted a plot to kill Pannun and issued a warning to India over concerns New Delhi was involved.
The US's charge comes amid continuing controversy over Canada's allegation that Indian agents were linked to the murder of Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June this year. However, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to provide evidence supporting these allegations.
INDIAN GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEE WAS ALLEGED HANDLER
The Indian government employee has not been named in the US court document which says that his responsibilities included security and intelligence. Referred to as 'CC-1', the unnamed person allegedly "directed" the plot to kill Pannun 'from India'. He recruited Nikhil Gupta in May 2023 to orchestrate Pannun's killing, the charges state.
Federal prosecutors allege that Gupta agreed to plan after being assured that a criminal case against him in Gujarat would be dismissed. The Indian official allegedly assured Gupta that "your Gujarat (case) had been taken care of" and "nobody will ever bother you again". He further offered to arrange a meeting between Gupta and a "DCP" (Deputy Commissioner of Police).
Gupta allegedly sought help from a supposed criminal associate to hire a hitman for Pannun's killing. The associate was, in fact, a confidential source working with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the hitman was an undercover agent with the agency, the prosecutors say.
The plot allegedly involved Gupta agreeing to pay $100,000 for Pannun's assassination, and an advance payment of $15,000 was delivered to the undercover agent (referred to as "UC" in the indictment) in Manhattan as part of the arrangement.
"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," the indictment states.According to court documents, the Indian official provided Gupta with detailed personal information about the target, including his home address, phone numbers, and daily routine, which Gupta then relayed to the DEA agent.
The official also instructed Gupta to keep him updated on the progress of the operation, which included forwarding surveillance photos of Pannun.
"Gupta directed the UC to carry out the murder as soon as possible, but Gupta also specifically instructed the UC not to commit the murder around the time of anticipated engagements scheduled to occur in the ensuing weeks between high-level US and Indian government officials," the charges state.Significantly, the official cautioned Gupta against carrying out the assassination plot before Prime Minister Modi's state visit to the US, which was scheduled for June 21-23. In a message, the official told Gupta, "It looks promising...but we have today only...if it doesn't happen today, it will be done after 24th."
Following the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada on June 18, Gupta informed the undercover agent that Nijjar "was also the target" and "we have so many targets".
The Indian official started pressing Gupta to proceed with the assassination, telling him in a text message on or around June 20 that "it's a priority now". Gupta, in turn, told the undercover agent that there was "now no need to wait" on killing Pannun.
A few days later, Gupta was arrested by authorities in the Czech republic. He is currently awaiting extradition.
The charges against Gupta include two counts of murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, carrying a potential maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted.
INDIA TAKES A STAND
Issuing a strong rebuttal, India has staunchly denied the US allegations, stating that the so-called conspiracy to murder Pannun was "contrary to government policy".
It acknowledged that an Indian government official's links to the alleged plot were a "matter of concern" and assured that a high-level probe committee will investigate all aspects of the case.