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Nikhil Gupta, accused in Pannun murder plot, will now face justice in American courtroom, says US attorney general

Gupta was produced before a federal court in New York on Monday, where he pleaded not guilty, according to his attorney, Jeffrey Chabrowe.

Nikhil Gupta, accused in Pannun murder plot, will now face justice in American courtroom, says US attorney general
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Nikhil Gupta, accused in Pannun murder plot (Photo: PTI)

NEW YORK: Indian national Nikhil Gupta, accused of being involved in a murder-for-hire plot against a Sikh extremist on American soil, will now face justice in a US courtroom, Attorney General Merrick Garland has said, asserting that the country will not tolerate attempts to harm its citizens.

Gupta, 53, also known as Nick, was arrested and detained in the Czech Republic on June 30, 2023, 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. He was extradited to the US on June 14.

Gupta was produced before a federal court in New York on Monday, where he pleaded not guilty, according to his attorney, Jeffrey Chabrowe.

"This extradition makes clear that the Justice Department will not tolerate attempts to silence or harm American citizens," 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.

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 for each charge.

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

"The extradition of the defendant is a vital step towards justice," she said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the agency will not tolerate attempts by foreign nationals or anyone else 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," he said.

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 an attorney and political activist, who is a US citizen of Indian origin, on US soil.

Gupta is an Indian national who resides in India, 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 media 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.

Pannun is a vocal critic of the Indian government and leads a US-based organisation 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, the federal prosecutors said.

They 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 assistance 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.

India has publicly said a high-level inquiry is looking into the evidence shared by the US in the alleged plot to kill Pannun.

PTI
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