UNITED STATES NEWS

An Indian official plotted to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader in New York, US prosecutors say

Nov 29, 2023, 3:24 AM | Updated: 11:12 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — An Indian government official directed a plot to assassinate a prominent Sikh separatist leader living in New York City, United States prosecutors said Wednesday as they announced charges against a man they said was part of the thwarted conspiracy.

U.S. officials became aware in the spring of the plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who advocated for the creation of a sovereign Sikh state and is considered a terrorist by the Indian government. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration interceded and set up a sting, with an undercover agent posing as a hitman, after the conspirators recruited an international narcotics trafficker in the plot to kill the activist for $100,000.

The Indian government official was not charged nor identified by name in an indictment unsealed Wednesday, but was described as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in security management and intelligence, said to have previously served in India’s Central Reserve Police Force.

The charges were aimed at a different person: Nikhil Gupta, 52, a citizen of India who was accused of murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire. The charges carry a potential penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

The indictment said Gupta was recruited in May by the unidentified Indian government employee to orchestrate the assassination of Pannun, who was only identified in court papers as “Victim.”

Gupta contacted a criminal associate to help find a hitman to carry out the killing, but that person happened to be a confidential source working with the DEA. The confidential source then introduced Gupta to a purported hitman, who was actually a DEA agent, the indictment said.

In June, the Indian government employee gave Gupta the home address of Pannun, his phone numbers and details about his daily conduct, including surveillance photos, which Gupta passed along to the undercover DEA agent, the indictment said.

It said Gupta directed the undercover agent to carry out the killing as soon as possible, without conflicting with anticipated engagements between high-level U.S. and Indian officials.

According to the indictment, Gupta told the undercover DEA agent the day after Nijjar’s killing in Canada that Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets.”

“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, an ethnoreligious minority group in India,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said in a news release.

“We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, and stand ready to investigate, thwart, and prosecute anyone who seeks to harm and silence Americans here or abroad,” he added.

The charges were the second major recent accusation of complicity of Indian government officials in attempts to kill Sikh separatist figures living in North America.

In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were credible allegations that the Indian government had links to the assassination in that country of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. India rejected the accusation as absurd, but Canada expelled a top Indian diplomat and India responded with the same measure.

Before the U.S. indictment was unsealed Wednesday, India announced it had set up a high-level inquiry after U.S. authorities raised concerns about preexisting knowledge of the plot to kill Pannun.

When the U.S. shared some information, India took it seriously, “since they impinge on our national security interests as well, and relevant departments were already examining the issue,” read a statement by External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi.

Gupta was arrested June 30 in the Czech Republic through a bilateral extradition treaty between the U.S. and the Czech Republic, prosecutors said. It was not immediately clear when he might be brought to the United States and whether he has secured legal representation there.

The case is particularly sensitive given the high priority that U.S. President Joe Biden placed on improving ties with India and courting it to be a major partner in the push to counter China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute, said Washington’s bet on India as a strategic partner to counter China will likely prevent a bilateral crisis.

“In most cases, if Washington accuses a foreign government of staging an assassination on its soil, U.S. relations with that government would plunge into crisis. But the relationship with India is a special case. … It’s notable that once the administration found out, it didn’t scale down engagement with India. High-level meetings went on as scheduled,” he said.

But if there is pressure on the administration from the public or from Capitol Hill to take a stronger stand, it will be hard to ignore, Kugelman added.

The White House declined to comment directly on the charges against Gupta, but said administration officials acted quickly.

“When we were made aware of the fact that the defendant in this case had credibly indicated that he was directed to arrange the murder by an individual who is assessed to be an employee of the Indian Government, we took this information very seriously and engaged in direct conversations with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concern,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

Trudeau said in a statement that Canadian authorities were working closely with American officials since August, and reiterated that “India needs to take this seriously.”

Pannun has been a leading organizer of the so-called Khalistan referendum, inviting Sikhs worldwide to vote on whether India’s Punjab state should become an independent nation based on religion. He is also general counsel with the Sikhs for Justice organization, which India banned in 2019.

“I’m not afraid of the physical death,” Pannun said in a telephone interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. If that’s the cost of running a campaign for an independent Sikh state, “I’m willing to pay that price,” he said.

Pannun said they had never used violence to achieve their goals.

“India has proved they believe in violence and bullets to stop” the campaign, he said, referring also to the assassination of Nijjar in Canada.

The White House first became aware of the plot in late July, according to a senior administration official.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive exchanges with Indian government, said White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, and underscored that India needed to investigate and hold those responsible accountable. Sullivan also said the U.S. needed assurance that this would not happen again, or it could permanently damage the trust established between our two countries, the official said.

Biden then asked CIA Director William Burns to contact his counterpart and travel to India to make it clear that the United States would not tolerate such activities.

Biden also raised the matter with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when they met at the Group of 20 Summit in September in New Delhi.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan raised the issue with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar when he visited Washington in September.

In October, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines travelled to India to share information with Indian officials to aid their internal investigation.

___

Sharma reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani and Eric Tucker in Washington, Rob Gillies in Toronto, Krutika Pathi in New Delhi, and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Brussels contributed to this report.

United States News

Donald Trump, with lawyers Christopher Kise and Alina Habba, attends the closing arguments in the T...

Associated Press

Donald Trump files notice of appeal over $454M judgment in New York civil fraud case

Donald Trump has appealed his $454 million New York civil fraud judgment, challenging a judge’s finding that Trump lied about his wealth.

9 minutes ago

FILE - Former U.S. President Donald Trump, with lawyers Christopher Kise and Alina Habba, attends t...

Associated Press

Donald Trump appeals $454 million judgment in New York civil fraud case

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump has appealed his $454 million New York civil fraud judgment, challenging a Trump lied about his wealth as he grew the real estate empire that launched him to stardom and the presidency. The former president’s lawyers filed a notice of appeal Monday asking the state’s mid-level appeals court to […]

34 minutes ago

FILE - Members of The Eagles, from left, Timothy B. Schmit, Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh po...

Associated Press

Eagles’ Don Henley set to take the stand at ‘Hotel California’ lyrics trial

NEW YORK (AP) — The trial surrounding handwritten draft lyrics to “Hotel California” and other Eagles hits is set to feature a star witness: Don Henley. The Eagles co-founder on Monday was expected to tell his version of how handwritten pages from the development of the band’s blockbuster 1976 album made their way from his […]

38 minutes ago

Associated Press

New York City honors victims of 1993 World Trade Center bombing

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City is marking the anniversary of the 1993 bombing at the old World Trade Center that blew apart a van parked in an underground garage, killing six people and injured more than 1,000. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is holding a memorial Mass on Monday […]

52 minutes ago

Associated Press

2 officers shot and killed a man who discharged a shotgun, police say

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Two officers in New York shot and killed a man over the weekend, prompting authorities to launch an investigation and his family to demand answers. Edward Holmes, 58, was fatally shot Saturday morning in Buffalo after police say he discharged his shotgun and officers returned fire. Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

US airman dies after setting himself ablaze outside Israeli Embassy in Israel-Hamas war protest

WASHINGTON (AP) — An active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force has died after he set himself ablaze outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., while declaring that he “will no longer be complicit in genocide.” The 25-year-old airman, Aaron Bushnell, of San Antonio, Texas, died from his injuries, the Metropolitan Police Department said Monday. […]

2 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.

...

Sanderson Ford

The best ways to honor our heroes on Veterans Day and give back to the community

Veterans Day is fast approaching and there's no better way to support our veterans than to donate to the Military Assistance Mission.

...

Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

An Indian official plotted to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader in New York, US prosecutors say