Man accused of plotting to murder Sikh separatist pleads not guilty

An Indian man pleaded not guilty Monday to charges he orchestrated an assassination plot against a Sikh separatist in New York, a plan prosecutors say he hatched on behalf of an unnamed Indian government official.

The defendant, Nikhil Gupta, 52, was arrested in the Czech Republic a year ago and extradited last week to make his first appearance in Manhattan federal court. He is accused of trying to organize the murder of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American citizen and lawyer for a Sikh secessionist group based in New York.

The assassination attempt, which took place amid doubts about India’s commitment to democracy, spread across several countries and echoes the successful assassination of another separatist in Canada, according to prosecutors.

On Monday morning, Mr. Gupta entered the Lower Manhattan courtroom wearing a blue cardigan and yellow patterned shirt and appeared relaxed as he spoke to his lawyer, Jeffrey Chabrowe, at the court table. defense. He has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn since arriving in the United States Friday afternoon.

In a statement to reporters after the indictment, Mr. Chabrowe called the case a “complex issue” for India and the United States. “The context and details will develop and could shed a whole new light on the government’s allegations,” he said.

Mr. Gupta is charged with murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on each count. He was returned to the detention center after his arraignment on Monday and is expected to appear in court again on June 28.

In a statement Monday, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said Mr. Gupta “will now face justice” in a U.S. courtroom. “This extradition makes clear that the Department of Justice will not tolerate attempts to silence or harm American citizens,” he said.

In an unsealed indictment from November, federal prosecutors in Manhattan described an audacious plot that began around May 2023 when an Indian government employee enlisted Mr. Gupta to organize the murder of Mr. Pannun, who was living in New York at the time.

Mr. Pannun is the general counsel of Sikhs for Justice, an organization that supports the secession of Punjab, a state in northern India. He is a vocal critic of the Indian government and has been banned from the country, according to prosecutors.

Mr. Gupta, who lived in India, had spoken to the government official about “his involvement in international drug and arms trafficking,” according to the indictment.

At the direction of the Indian government employee, Mr. Gupta contacted a man who he believed would help him hire a hitman in New York, but who was in fact an agent of the U.S. government. That agent introduced Mr. Gupta to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration officer who claimed to be the hitman.

In the deals brokered by Mr. Gupta, the Indian government official agreed to pay the DEA officer $100,000 to kill Mr. Pannun, including a $15,000 cash advance for the work, they said. prosecutors.

Mr. Gupta then shared personal information about Mr. Pannun with the undercover agent, including Mr. Pannun’s New York address and telephone number. When the Indian official asked for updates, Mr. Gupta relayed surveillance photos of Mr. Pannun that the agent had sent him.

Mr. Gupta asked the undercover agent to carry out the assassination as quickly as possible, but asked him not to do so during high-level meetings between U.S. and Indian officials, according to the filing. charge. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington and met President Biden in June 2023.

Then, according to prosecutors, on June 18 of that year, gunmen killed Hardeep Singh Nijjar, another Sikh separatist leader, in British Columbia, Canada. Mr. Nijjar knew Mr. Pannun and was also an outspoken critic of the Indian government.

Shortly afterward, prosecutors said, Mr. Gupta told the undercover agent that Mr. Nijjar “was also the target” and that “we have so many targets.” Mr. Gupta then told the officer — the alleged hitman — that there was “no longer any need to wait” to kill Mr. Pannun, prosecutors said.

On Monday, Mr. Pannun said in a statement that he had “full confidence” that the United States would hold Mr. Gupta and his co-conspirators are responsible.

“The attempt on my life on American soil is a blatant case of India’s transnational terrorism that challenges America’s autonomy and proves unequivocally that Modi’s India believes in the use of violence to repress dissenting political opinions,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

M. Gupta’s case threatens to complicate delicate relations between Washington, Ottawa and New Delhi. During his presidency, Mr. Biden courted Indian leaders to counter the influence of Russia and China, despite growing concerns about India’s commitment to democracy.

Mr. Modi, in power since 2014, was re-elected Indian prime minister in June, even though his Bharatiya Janata Party lost its majority in Parliament.

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