It has been described as a New York stunt with international implications: a daring assassination plot against a Sikh separatist.
The failed attempt was revealed Wednesday by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, who charged an Indian national with planning to kill the separatist and political activist, who is a U.S. citizen and has openly expressed his belief in a Sikh-majority homeland. The indictment says the plan was hatched by an Indian agent and was linked to the June assassination of a separatist in Canada, allegations that could complicate delicate relations between Washington, Ottawa and New Delhi.
The attack was planned by an Indian government official who told the man charged with carrying it out, Nikhil Gupta, that there was a target in New York and another in California, according to prosecutors. “We have so many targets,” the official told him.
The indictment included a photo of a roll of hundred-dollar bills that he said was an advance for the job in New York.
But the so-called hitman was actually working for the U.S. government.
News of the attempted attack described in court documents quickly spread through government channels on Wednesday. The indictment and killing of the Sikh activist in Canada upended a key part of President Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Despite growing concerns about India’s commitment to democracy, Mr. Biden is courting the country’s leaders to counter the influence of Russia and China.
The result has been strengthened defense and trade ties, as well as regular visits to India by U.S. officials. But allegations that the government of India, the world’s most populous country, played a role in the assassination of one of its critics on Canadian soil and was plotting to do the same in the United States, could undermine any notion of India’s reliability as an ally. .
Just a few months ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of involvement in the June murder of another Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Surrey, British Columbia. American intelligence agencies provided information to the Canadian government about this murder. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which is leading the investigation in British Columbia, have not provided any information on the progress of the case.
And U.S. officials had raised concerns with the Indian government about the planned assassination in New York days before the charges against Mr. Gupta, 52, were announced by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. It was not immediately clear Wednesday who Mr. Gupta was representing.
The target of the plot was identified by U.S. officials as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for the New York-based group Sikhs for Justice. Mr. Pannun is a strong advocate for the independence of the northern Indian state of Punjab, home to large numbers of Sikhs, a powerful minority group in the country.
The goal of these Sikh separatists is the creation of a sovereign state known as Khalistan. In a region marked by both colonial emancipation and external forces, such division was fraught and lasted for decades.
Mr. Gupta, who lived in India, had spoken to the Indian government official about “his involvement in international drug and arms trafficking,” according to the indictment. These bona fide criminals apparently led Mr. Gupta to contact an individual he believed to be a hitman, but who “was in fact an undercover U.S. law enforcement agent,” according to the indictment .
Money soon comes into play: $100,000 promised “to murder the victim,” according to the indictment, including a $15,000 cash payment as an advance, according to prosecutors.
While Sikh separatists committed violence in India in the 1980s, Mr. Pannun, like Mr. Nijjar, was not involved in any terrorist activity and sought to create an independent state through democratic means, officials say Americans informed of the subject.
The Justice Department’s indictment shows connections between the plots against the two men. Mr. Nijjar knew Mr. Pannun. Shortly after Mr. Nijjar’s killing, the Indian government agent sent Mr. Gupta a video clip of Nijjar’s “bloodied body slumped in his vehicle,” according to the indictment.
Shortly afterward, prosecutors charge, that agent sent Mr. Gupta the address of Mr. Pannun, with a note saying that Mr. Nijjar “was also the target.” Prosecutors said he told Mr Gupta there was “no need to wait” to kill Mr Pannun and that he was “now a priority”.
After the killing in British Columbia, FBI agents warned Sikh leaders in the United States of potential threats.
After the Biden administration learned that Mr. Gupta had “credibly indicated” that he had conspired with an employee of the Indian government, the White House engaged “in direct conversations with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concern,” Adrienne Watson, a National Security Council spokeswoman said Wednesday.
“The Indian government has made it clear that it takes this seriously and will investigate,” Ms Watson said in a statement. “We are providing information to the Indian government to assist in its internal investigation. We will continue to demand accountability. »
President Biden ordered William J. Burns, the CIA director, to travel to India to discuss the alleged assassination plot and pressure the Indian government to hold those involved accountable, according to reports. American officials close to the events. Mr Biden himself raised the issue directly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting at the Group of 20 summit in September.
In a statement posted on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of India, a spokesperson, Shri Arindam Bagchi, said that “during discussions with the United States on bilateral security cooperation, the American side shared some contributions regarding the connection between organized organizations.” criminals, arms traffickers, terrorists and others.
Bagchi added that the Indian government had constituted a “high-level” committee “to examine all relevant aspects of the matter”.
Federal prosecutors in New York said the plot involved several co-conspirators, including the Indian government official, who had law enforcement experience.
That individual, who has not been identified, is accused of recruiting Mr. Gupta, who prosecutors say then hired the alleged hitman to kill Mr. Pannun and provided personal information about him, including his home address in New York and details of his daily life. activities.
This hitman, however, turned out to be an “undercover agent of American law enforcement”, according to the American prosecutor.
Mr. Gupta was arrested by authorities in the Czech Republic in late June, according to the Southern District. He faces charges of “murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire,” prosecutors said, with each count carrying a potential sentence of 10 years in prison.
Mujib Mashal And Vjosa Isai reports contributed. Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.