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Man charged in alleged plot by Indian government official to assassinate US citizen

by tbhad

Kevin Breuninger, CNBC

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday announced murder-for-hire charges against a man in an alleged plot by an Indian government official to assassinate a U.S. citizen in New York City.

Nikhil Gupta, a 52-year-old Indian national, is charged in federal court in Manhattan with two criminal counts related to the ultimately foiled murder plot, a newly unsealed court filing shows.

Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30 at the request of the U.S. government.

The superseding indictment unsealed Wednesday morning alleges Gupta was recruited by an unnamed Indian official to orchestrate the murder of a political activist who is a vocal critic of the nation’s government.

The alleged target, who is also not named in the charging documents, is described by the Department of Justice as an attorney and activist who is a U.S. citizen of Indian origin residing in New York City. News outlets including The New York Times and the Washington Post have identified him as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for the group Sikhs for Justice.

The group advocates for the secession of the northern Indian state of Punjab, home to a large concentration of the Sikh ethnoreligious minority group. The Indian government has already banned the alleged victim and his separatist group from the country, according to the DOJ.

The Indian government official who allegedly directed the murder plot has called himself a “Senior Field Officer” with responsibilities in “Security Management” and “Intelligence,” according to the DOJ.

At that official’s direction, Gupta contacted a presumed criminal associate who could help him contract a hitman, according to the DOJ. But the person Gupta contacted was actually an undercover U.S. law enforcement agent, the DOJ said.

The undercover agent put Gupta in touch with another law enforcement officer posing as the hitman, according to the DOJ. Gupta allegedly then helped broker a deal for the Indian government official to pay the purported hitman $100,000 for the assassination.

The government official gave personal information about the victim to Gupta and asked for regular updates about the progress of the murder plot, the DOJ alleged. Around June, Gupta directed the purported hitman to assassinate the activist as soon as possible — but not around the time of expected diplomatic talks between the U.S. and India, the DOJ alleged.

The same month, another Indian government critic and advocate for Sikh separatism, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was killed by masked gunmen in British Columbia, Canada, the DOJ noted.

The day after that murder, Gupta allegedly told the undercover hitman that Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets.” Gupta added that there was “now no need to wait” on killing the New York City target in light of Nijjar’s killing.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in September that there were “credible allegations” linking India’s government to the death of Nijjar, a citizen of Canada.

The killing, and Trudeau’s accusation, have dramatically strained tensions between India and Canada and prompted expulsions of diplomats from both countries.

The discovery of the attempted assassination plot on U.S. soil spurred the Biden administration to send CIA Director William Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to New Delhi earlier this year, The Washington Post reported earlier Wednesday.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs said Thursday the Indian government convened a “high-level Enquiry Committee” on Nov. 18 to investigate “all the relevant aspects of the matter” and has pledged to take all necessary follow-up action based on the committee’s findings.

“We have already said that during the course of discussions with the US on bilateral security cooperation, the US side shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

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