US Alleges Indian Government Officer Directed Assassination Plot
An Indian held in the Czech Republic is charged in New York with plotting to kill a Sikh activist
Washington — A man who claimed to be a “senior field officer” for an Indian intelligence agency has been accused by U.S. federal prosecutors of orchestrating a foiled assassination plot against an American citizen who is the leader of Sikh separatist movement.
Documents made public by the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday do not name the Indian official, but indicated he worked with others in a government office in New Delhi and hired Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national, to arrange the killing.
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Federal prosecutors allege the Indian official was repeatedly in contact with Gupta and wired him $15,000 as an advance payment for a promised $100,000 for the murder of the political activist.
Gupta, who is 52, is awaiting extradition to the United States from the Czech Republic. He faces murder-for-hire, conspiracy and racketeering charges in the United States in connection with the alleged plot.
The leader of Sikhs for Justice, attorney Gurpatwant Singh Pannum, a U.S.-Canadian dual national, has previously indicated he was the target, telling reporters the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to kill him for criticizing the Indian government and advocating for an independent state of Khalistan.
“The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs,” said U.S. Attorney Damian William in a statement. “We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.”
Defendant’s ‘hitman’ was undercover agent
U.S. law enforcement detected and disrupted the operation.
According to a superseding indictment unsealed Wednesday, Gupta contacted an individual whom Gupta believed to be a criminal associate, but who was actually a confidential source working with the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Gupta asked the source for assistance in contracting a hitman to murder the target in New York City. The confidential source introduced Gupta to a purported hitman, who was in fact an undercover U.S. law enforcement officer, according to the indictment.
“When a foreign government employee allegedly committed the brazen act of recruiting an international narcotics trafficker to murder a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, DEA was there to stop the plot,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram in a statement on Wednesday.
A day after a Sikh separatist in Canada, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was assassinated on June 19 near Vancouver, Gupta allegedly instructed the man he thought would be the hitman to proceed with the murder in New York because both Sikh activists were on the same hit list.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau subsequently accused the Indian government of involvement in the killing of Nijjar. Trudeau’s accusation, which India denied, roiled relations between Ottawa and New Delhi.
Gupta was allegedly instructed that if the New York killing could not be done immediately, he should tell the assassin to wait until after Modi concluded his June 22nd state visit to U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House.
The Biden administration learned of the alleged plot late the following month and raised the matter with senior Indian government officials, according to The Washington Post. In early August, national security adviser Jake Sullivan brought his concerns to his counterpart, Ajit Doval, in person during a meeting in another country in the region, the newspaper reported on Wednesday.
The same message was subsequently amplified by the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, when he flew to New Delhi to meet Ravi Sinha, who heads the Research and Analytical Wing, India’s external intelligence agency.
Biden, according to media reports, also raised the matter when he met again with Modi at the Group of 20 Summit in September in New Delhi.
“Indian counterparts expressed surprise and concern” when confronted by the allegations, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said last week, after the New York plot was first reported by The Financial Times. “They stated that activity of this nature was not their policy.”
India’s government has set up a high-level inquiry to look into the allegations of its involvement.
The U.S. government shared some information and India "takes such inputs seriously since they impinge on our national security interests as well, and relevant departments were already examining the issue," said External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi in a statement issued Wednesday.