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US prosecutors charge Indian national with failed assassination of Sikh activist

Nikhil Gupta is charged with trying to kill an American citizen amid a strengthening of US ties with New Delhi
Hindu nationalists shout slogans while holding a banner depicting Gurpatwant Singh Pannun during a rally along a street in New Delhi on 24 September 2023.
Hindu nationalists shout slogans while holding a banner depicting Gurpatwant Singh Pannun during a rally along a street in New Delhi, on 24 September 2023 (AFP)

US prosecutors in New York have charged an Indian national with a failed attempt to assassinate an American citizen on US soil, according to an indictment that was newly unsealed on Wednesday.

Authorities say that an unnamed Indian government official recruited 52-year-old Nikhil Gupta, who went on to contact someone he believed to be a hitman to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. Pannun is a prominent Sikh activist and New York-based lawyer for the Punjabi secessionist group, Sikhs for Justice.

The individual Gupta contacted was, however, not a hit man but an undercover officer working for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). According to Wednesday's indictment, Gupta had brokered a deal in which the unnamed Indian government employee would pay the hitman $100,000 for the killing.

The indictment did not name Pannun as the victim. However, Biden administration officials later said that the target of the failed assassination was the Sikh activist.

“The dedicated law enforcement agents and prosecutors in this case foiled and exposed a dangerous plot to assassinate a US citizen on US soil," assistant attorney general Matthew Olsen said in a statement.

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"The Department of Justice will be relentless in using the full reach of our authorities to pursue accountability for lethal plotting emanating from overseas."

Wednesday's indictment stated that the plot to assassinate Pannun took place in June, around the same time that Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian Sikh separatist, was assassinated by Indian "agents", leading to a public diplomatic row between Canada and India.

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Gupta was arrested that same month while in the Czech Republic, which has a bilateral extradition treaty with the US. He faces charges that could land him a sentence of 10 years in jail.

The attempted assassination comes at a time when the US has sought to deepen its ties with India and the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The strengthening of ties comes despite concerns from human rights advocates and rights groups that have called on Washington to hold the Indian government accountable for a growing crackdown on civil society and religious minorities.

The Biden administration was made aware of the attempted murder-for-hire in July, and warned the Indian government of the consequences if it did not take the matter seriously, a US official told the Wall Street Journal without elaborating.

The failed plot led to a number of high-level discussions between Biden officials and Indian counterparts, including between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“The Government of India was clear with us that they were taking this seriously and would investigate,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement to the Journal.

“We are providing information to the Government of India to aid in their internal investigation. We will continue to expect accountability from the Government of India based on the results of their investigations.”

In an interview with Time Magazine, Pannun said that the assassination attempt was "a challenge to American sovereignty".

"It is a threat to freedom of speech and democracy in America itself."

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