NEW YORK — An Indian government official led a plot to assassinate a prominent Sikh separatist leader living in New York, U.S. prosecutors said Wednesday in announcing charges against a man they say was part of the murder plot foiled.
U.S. officials became aware last spring of the plot to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who advocated the creation of a sovereign Sikh state and is considered a terrorist by the Indian government.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration stepped in and set up an operation, with an undercover agent posing as a hitman, after the conspirators recruited an international narcotics trafficker as part of a plot to to assassinate the activist for $100,000.
The Indian government official was not charged or identified by name in an indictment unsealed Wednesday, but was described as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in “security management” and “intelligence ” and who is believed to have previously served in India’s Central Reserve Police Force.
The charges included another person, Nikhil Gupta, 52, an Indian citizen accused of murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire. The charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
“The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York, an American citizen of Indian origin who publicly advocated the establishment of a sovereign state for the Sikhs, an ethno-religious minority group in India,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams. Manhattan’s chief federal prosecutor, said in a press release.
“We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate American citizens on American soil and we are prepared to investigate, thwart and prosecute anyone who seeks to harm and silence Americans here or abroad,” he said. added.
The charges constitute the second major recent accusation of complicity by Indian government officials in attempted assassinations of Sikh separatist figures living in North America.
In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were credible allegations that the Indian government had links to the assassination in that country of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. India rejected the accusation as absurd, but Canada expelled a senior Indian diplomat and India responded in kind.
Before the US indictment was unsealed on Wednesday, India announced it had opened a high-level investigation after US authorities raised concerns with New Delhi that its government may have knowledge of the plot to kill Pannun.
The US side has shared some information and India “takes these inputs seriously as they also impinge on our national security interests, and relevant departments are already looking into the matter,” the Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, Arindam Bagchi.
Gupta was arrested June 30 in the Czech Republic as part of a bilateral extradition treaty between the United States and the Czech Republic, prosecutors said. It is unclear when he might be brought to the United States or whether he has been granted legal representation in the United States.
The matter is particularly sensitive given the high priority President Joe Biden has placed on improving ties with India and wooing it to become a major partner in combating growing assertiveness. China in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
The White House declined to comment directly on the accusations against Gupta, but said administration officials acted quickly.
“When we were informed that the accused in this case had credibly indicated that he had been instructed to arrange the murder by an individual believed to be an employee of the Indian government, we took this information very seriously. seriously and we are engaged in direct conversations with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concern,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
Trudeau said in a statement that Canadian authorities have been working closely with U.S. officials since August.
“The news coming out of the United States further highlights what we have been talking about from the very beginning, which is that India needs to take this seriously and the Indian government needs to work with us,” he said.
Pannun was one of the main organizers of the Khalistan referendum, inviting Sikhs around the world to vote on whether the Indian state of Punjab should become an independent nation based on religion. Organizers of the non-binding referendum hope to present the results to the UN General Assembly in about two years. He is also general counsel of the organization Sikhs for Justice, banned by India in 2019.
“I’m not afraid of physical death,” Pannun said in a telephone interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.
If his death is the price to pay for leading a campaign to hold the vote in Khalistan on whether Indian-ruled Punjab should be an independent country, “I am ready to pay that price,” he said. he declares.
“We have never incited, provoked or encouraged violence as a means to achieve any political goal,” Pannun said.
“India has proven that it believes in violence and bullets to stop” the campaign, he said, also referring to Nijjar’s assassination in Canada.
The indictment says Gupta was recruited last May by an unidentified Indian government employee to orchestrate the assassination of Pannun, who was only identified in court documents as the “victim.”
Gupta contacted a criminal associate to help him find a hit man to commit the murder, but that person turned out to be a confidential source working with the DEA. The confidential source then introduced Gupta to an alleged hitman, who was actually a DEA agent, according to the indictment.
In June, the Indian government employee gave Gupta Pannun’s home address, telephone numbers and details of his daily conduct, including surveillance photographs, which Gupta then passed to the undercover agent from the DEA, according to the indictment.
It says Gupta ordered the undercover agent to commit the murder as soon as possible, but also warned the agent not to commit the murder at the time of planned clashes between senior U.S. and Indian officials.
According to the indictment, Gupta told the undercover DEA agent the day after Nijjar’s murder in Canada that Nijjar “was also the target” and that “we have so many targets.”
He added that in light of Nijjar’s murder, there was “no longer any need to wait” to carry out the New York assassination, according to the indictment. Later, the Indian government official behind the New York assassination plot sent Gupta a news article about the New York assassination target and sent a message to Gupta saying his death was a “priority now,” the indictment states.
The White House first became aware of the plot in late July, according to a senior administration official.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive exchanges with the Indian government, said White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, and stressed that India must investigate and hold those responsible to account.
Sullivan also made clear that the United States needed reassurance that this would not happen again and warned that another episode could permanently damage the trust established between our two countries, the official said.
Biden then asked CIA Director William Burns to contact his counterpart and travel to India to make it clear that the United States would not tolerate such activities and that his administration expected accountability. are returned.
Biden also raised the issue directly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting at the Group of 20 summit in September in New Delhi.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan raised the issue with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar during his visit to Washington in September for the annual United Nations General Assembly.
In October, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines traveled to India to share information with Indian government officials to aid their internal investigation.
Sharma reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani and Eric Tucker in Washington, Rob Gillies in Toronto and AP Diplomatic Editor Matthew Lee in Brussels contributed to this report.