NEW YORK — An Indian national was hit with murder-for-hire and conspiracy charges in Manhattan on Wednesday for his alleged role in a $100,000 plot to kill a New York City-based leader of the Sikh separatist movement.
Nikhil “Nick” Gupta, who the feds say is involved in drugs and weapons trafficking, is accused of working to carry out the orders of an unnamed Indian government official who sought to cut down Gurpatwant Singh Pannun because of his criticism of India’s leadership.
Pannun, an immigration attorney and political activist based in the city, is banned from his native country, as is his organization. He has advocated for the largely-Sikh population in the northern state of Punjab to secede from India and establish a sovereign state.
The government official — referred to in court documents as an unnamed co-conspirator — allegedly recruited Gupta to carry out the hit via India in May, in exchange for getting rid of criminal charges he faced. Prosecutors say the official previously worked for India’s Central Reserve Police Force and in various national security and intelligence capacities.
“As alleged, the defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said. “We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.”
After getting his assignment, discussed on the phone and in person in New Delhi, the 52-year-old Gupta reached out to a “criminal associate” he didn’t realize was an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, court docs allege. They then put him in touch with a supposed hitman — also undercover for the DEA.
Gupta’s accused of brokering a deal between the official and the supposed hitman to take out Pannun for $100,000 and having an associate deliver an advance payment of $15,000 in Manhattan in June.
Gupta’s described in Wednesday’s indictment as acting as a go-between, passing surveillance from the government official to the undercover showing Pannun’s day-to-day activities and directing him to carry out the killing quickly — but not when high-level meetings between U.S. and Indian officials were scheduled to occur.
Hours after another Sikh separatist leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was murdered by masked gunmen outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia on June 18, the government official sent Gupta a video of a slain Nijjar, according to the indictment. Shortly after, he sent Gupta Pannun’s address.
In response, Gupta allegedly told the official he wished he had carried out Nijjar’s murder himself, expressing his desire to “go to the field.”
The next day, Gupta contacted the undercover to tell him that, like Pannun, Nijjar had also been on the hit list and that “we have so many targets,” authorities said.
“If he is not alone, (if) there are two guys with him in the meeting or something . . . put everyone down,” Gupta was quoted in another exchange with the purported hitman.
The feds intervened about a week later. Gupta was arrested on June 30 when he arrived in the Czech Republic, which has an extradition treaty with the U.S.
Gupta now faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. It’s not clear when he’ll appear in court stateside. The News could not reach his lawyer.
Meanwhile, the Indian government has not acknowledged any plot to kill Pannun and has denied involvement in Nijjar’s murder.
In September, however, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country’s investigators had found “credible evidence” that Indian officials ordered the killing of Nijjar.