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India

Indian national accused of plotting to kill Sikh leader appears in US court

New York: An Indian man accused of plotting to kill a Sikh Khalistan leader in New York City appeared in a federal court, where he pleaded not guilty.

It was the first appearance of accused Nikhil Gupta in the court after being extradited from the Czech Republic and landing in the United States on Friday.

He is charged by US authorities with trying to hire a hit man to assassinate Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a U.S. citizen, who is the legal advisor to Sikhs for Justice (SfJ), an advocacy group, which is campaigning for an independent state of Khalistan.

“This murder-for-hire plot — allegedly orchestrated by an Indian government employee to kill a U.S. citizen in New York City — was a brazen attempt to silence a political activist for exercising a quintessential American right: his freedom of speech,” US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

“The extradition of the defendant is a vital step toward justice, and I am grateful to our Czech partners for their assistance in this matter. We will continue working relentlessly to identify, disrupt, and hold accountable those who seek to harm American citizens here or abroad.”

Gupta, 52, was arrested in the Czech Republic a year ago. The murder attempt, which played out against a backdrop of doubt about India’s commitment to democracy, spanned several countries and mirrored the successful killing of another separatist in Canada, media reports quoting prosecutors say.

He has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn since landing in the United States on Friday afternoon.

In a statement to reporters after the arraignment, his lawyer Jeffrey Chabrowe called the case a “complex matter” for India and the United States.

Gupta is charged with murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire. If convicted, he would face a maximum of 10 years in prison for each charge, the reports said. He was sent back to the detention center after Monday’s arraignment and is set to appear in court again on June 28.

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

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

Pannun is a vocal critic of the Indian government and has been banned from the country, prosecutors say.

Gupta, who lived in India, had told the government official about “his involvement in international narcotics and weapons trafficking,” according to the indictment.

At the direction of the Indian government employee, Gupta contacted a man who he believed would help him hire a hit man in New York, but who was, in fact, an agent for the American government, the reports said. That agent introduced Gupta to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.) officer who pretended to be the hit man.

In deals brokered by Gupta, the Indian government official agreed to pay the D.E.A. officer $100,000 to kill Pannun, including a $15,000 cash advance for the job, prosecutors said.

Gupta then shared personal information about Pannun with the undercover officer, including Pannun’s address in New York and his phone number, according to the reports. When the Indian official asked for updates, Gupta relayed surveillance photos of Pannun that the agent had sent him.

Gupta instructed the undercover officer to carry out the assassination as soon as possible, but asked him not to do it around the time of high-level meetings between U.S. and Indian leaders, according to the indictment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington and met with President Joe Biden in June 2023.

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

Soon after, prosecutors said, Gupta told the undercover officer that Nijjar “was also the target” and that “we have so many targets.” Gupta then told the officer — the pretend hit man — that there was “now no need to wait” to kill Pannun, prosecutors said.

Pannun said in a statement that he had “full faith” that the United States would hold Gupta and his co-conspirators accountable.

“The attempt on my life on American soil is the blatant case of India’s transnational terrorism challenging America’s sovereignty and unequivocally proves that Modi’s India believes in using violence to suppress the dissenting political opinion,” he said.

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