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Indian Man Accused In Murder-For-Hire Plot Against Sikh Separatist Pleads Not Guilty In US Court

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An Indian national, accused of being involved in a murder-for-hire plot against a Sikh separatist on American soil, has pleaded not guilty in the case at a federal court, days after he was extradited from the Czech Republic to the US.

The 52-year-old Nikhil Gupta, also known as Nick, was arrested in the Czech Republic in June last year at the request of the US government on charges of being involved in a plot to assassinate Khalistani separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York. Pannun holds dual American and Canadian citizenship.

Gupta was produced before a federal court in New York on Monday, where he pleaded not guilty, according to his attorney, Jeffrey Chabrowe. The Czech Constitutional Court last month rejected a petition by Gupta against his extradition to the US to face the charges. US prosecutors allege that Gupta hired a hitman to kill Pannun and paid USD 15,000 in advance. Gupta, through his attorney, has denied the charges and said that he has been “unfairly charged”.

Courtroom sketch of Gupta

Indian Man Accused In Murder-For-Hire Plot Against Sikh Separatist Pleads Not Guilty In US Court 1 Indian Man Accused In Murder-For-Hire Plot Against Sikh Separatist Pleads Not Guilty In US Court
Nikhil Gupta Appears in federal court after his extradition from the Czech Republic, in New York City, U.S. June 17, 2024, in this courtroom sketch. (Reuters)

‘Unwarranted and unsubstantiated’

US federal prosecutors allege that Gupta had been working according to the directions of an unnamed Indian government official. India has, however, denied its involvement in such a case and has instituted a high-level investigation into the allegations. Czech authorities have released footage of Gupta’s extradition to the US on June 14, which shows New York Police officials escorting him.

On Monday, the Czech Justice Minister confirmed that Gupta has been extradited to the US. “On the basis of my decision on (June 3), Indian citizen Nikhil Gupta, who is suspected of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire with intent to cause death, was extradited to the US on Friday (June 14) for criminal prosecution,” Czech Justice Minister Pavel Blazek said in a post on X.

Earlier, the Ministry of External Affairs had rejected reports of government involvement, saying it makes “unwarranted and unsubstantiated imputations” to claim that Indian agents were involved in the plot to kill Pannun. India has publicly said a high-level inquiry is looking into the evidence shared by the US in the alleged plot to kill Pannun.

Reactions

“This is a complex matter for both our countries,” Gupta’s attorney Chabrowe told PTI ahead of his client’s arraignment in a federal court. “It is extremely important that we refrain from rushing to conclusions so early in the process. Background and details will develop that may cast government allegations into an entirely new light,” Chabrowe said. “We will pursue his defence vigorously and ensure he receives full due process, regardless of outside pressures,” he added

“This extradition makes clear that the Justice Department will not tolerate attempts to silence or harm American citizens,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Monday. “Nikhil Gupta will now face justice in an American courtroom for his involvement in an alleged plot, directed by an employee of the Indian government, to target and assassinate a US citizen for his support of the Sikh separatist movement in India,” he said.

“This defendant has been extradited for his alleged role in a plot to assassinate a U.S. citizen on American soil,” said Director Christopher Wray of the FBI. “The FBI will not tolerate attempts by foreign nationals, or anyone else for that matter, to repress constitutionally-protected freedoms in the United States. We will continue to work with our partners at home and abroad to protect our citizens and these sacred rights.”

What’s The Alleged Plot

According to court documents, last year, an Indian government employee (CC-1) allegedly worked together with Gupta and others in India and elsewhere to direct an assassination plot against a US citizen of Indian origin, on US soil. Gupta is an associate of CC-1, and has described his involvement in international narcotics and weapons trafficking in his communications with CC-1 and others, a press release said.

CC-1 is an Indian government agency employee who has variously described himself as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in “security management” and “intelligence” and has referenced previously serving in India’s Central Reserve Police Force and receiving “officer training” in “battle craft” and “weapons”. CC-1 directed the assassination plot from India, it added. Federal prosecutors alleged that CC-1 recruited Gupta in May 2023 to orchestrate the assassination in the US.

The federal prosecutors alleged that on CC-1’s direction, Gupta contacted an individual whom he believed to be a criminal associate but he was in fact a confidential source working with the DEA (the CS) for help in contracting a hitman to murder the victim in New York City. “The CS introduced Gupta to a purported hitman, who was in fact a DEA undercover officer (the UC). CC-1 subsequently agreed, in dealings brokered by Gupta, to pay the UC USD 1,00,000 to murder the victim. On or about June 9, 2023, CC-1 and Gupta arranged for an associate to deliver USD 15,000 in cash to the UC as an advance payment for the murder.

CC-1’s associate then delivered the USD 15,000 to the UC in Manhattan,” they said. In June 2023, in furtherance of the assassination plot, CC-1 provided Gupta with personal information about the victim, including the victim’s home address, phone numbers associated with the victim and details about the victim’s day-to-day conduct, which Gupta then passed on to the UC, they added. CC-1 directed Gupta to provide regular updates on the progress of the assassination plot, which Gupta accomplished by allegedly forwarding to CC-1, among other things, surveillance photographs of the victim.

“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 US and Indian government officials,” the prosecutors said. According to the prosecutors, after Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed outside a gurdwara in Canada on June 18, 2023, Gupta allegedly told the UC that he “was also the target” and “we have so many targets”. Around June 20, 2023, CC-1 sent Gupta a news article about the victim and messaged him “(i)t’s (a) priority now”, the prosecutors alleged.

(With agency inputs)





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