Justice Department Charges Indian National in Foiled Assassination Plot Against American Sikh Leader

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What to Know:

The United States Department of Justice has filed murder-for-hire charges against an Indian national for a foiled assassination plot against an Indian-American leader of a Sikh independence movement. There charges come as Canada made allegations against the Indian government for the assassination of another Sikh leader, which rapidly deteriorated relations between the two countries.

The Case:

The Justice Department filed murder-for-hire charges against Indian national Nikhil Gupta in a foiled assassination attempt against an unnamed Indian-American attorney and political activist (the Victim) in New York City, which was allegedly directed by an Indian government employee (CC-1) described as a “Senior Field Officer” in Indian intelligence.

The Victim has been described as “a vocal critic of the Indian government and leads a U.S.-based organization that advocates for the secession of Punjab, a state in northern India that is home to a large population of Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India,” according to the Justice Department.

“The Victim has publicly called for some or all of Punjab to secede from India and establish a Sikh sovereign state called Khalistan, and the Indian government has banned the Victim and his separatist organization from India.”

The Justice Department alleges that in May 2023, Gupta was recruited by CC-1 to assassinate the Victim.

At CC-1’s direction, Gupta contacted an individual whom Gupta believed to be a criminal associate, but who was in fact a confidential source working with U.S. law enforcement (the CS), for assistance in contracting a hitman to murder the Victim in New York City. The CS introduced Gupta to a purported hitman, who was actually an undercover U.S. law enforcement officer (the UC). CC-1 subsequently agreed in dealings brokered by Gupta to pay the UC $100,000 to murder the Victim.

In June, CC-1 also provided Gupta “with personal information about the Victim, including the Victim’s home address in New York City, phone numbers associated with the Victim, and details about the Victim’s day-to-day conduct,” which was passed to the UC.

The Justice Department then alleged that “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 U.S. and Indian government officials.”

On June 18, masked gunmen murdered Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia, Canada. The Justice Department stated that “Nijjar was an associate of the Victim, and like the Victim, was a leader of the Sikh separatist movement and an outspoken critic of the Indian government.”

The next day, Gupta told the UC that Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets.” Gupta added that, in light of Nijjar’s murder, there was “now no need to wait” on killing the Victim. On or about June 20, CC-1 sent Gupta a news article about the Victim and messaged Gupta, “[i]t’s [a] priority now,” according to the Justice Department.

Czech authorities arrested and detained Gupta on June 30, 2023 pursuant to the bilateral extradition treaty between the United States and the Czech Republic. Gupta is charged with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. Each count carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison.

Nijjar’s Murder:

In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of having involvement in the murder of Nijjar, which India denied, releasing a statement saying that “Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Canada further expelled Pavan Kumar Rai, the head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s foreign intelligence agency, in Canada. In response, India expelled the Canadian high commissioner to New Delhi.

India later threatened to strip diplomatic immunity from Canadian diplomats in the country and as a result Canada recalled 41 diplomats. India also suspended visa applications for Canadians, accusing Canada of being “a safe haven for terrorists, extremists, and organized crime.”

Both countries have also issued travel warning for each other as political tensions continue to mount.