Accused in Pannun murder for hire plot extradited to USA

Nikhil Gupta has been charged with murder for hire linked to a foiled plot to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun

Murtaza Ali Shah
June 17, 2024
Pro-Khalistan Sikh leader and Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) General Counsel Gurpatwant Singh Pannun (centre). — Photo by author

LONDON: Indian citizen and Indian spy agency RAW’s agent accused of attempting to kill Sikh leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York has been extradited to the US ahead of an expected federal court appearance.

Nikhil Gupta has been charged with murder for hire linked to a foiled plot to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual US and Canadian citizen who advocates for an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.

Gupta, 52, is listed on the Board of Prisons inmate website as being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, a federal administrative detention facility, US media reported.

Gupta, who had been detained in the Czech Republic, arrived in New York over the weekend after the US request was accepted by the Czech government. Typically, extradited defendants must appear in court within a day of their arrival in the country.

The US government said a senior Indian government intelligence employee from RAW ordered the assassination of Pannun in May and hired Gupta to arrange the hit.

US authorities broke up the plot last June before it could be carried out. Pannun works as general counsel for the New York-based Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) — a group that seeks to carve from India an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.

Gupta’s attorney, Rohini Musa, wrote in a petition to the Indian Supreme Court that her client is being unfairly prosecuted, saying there is “nothing on record to link the Petitioner to the massive alleged plot to assassinate the alleged victim.”

Musa complained that Gupta received adverse legal advice from a Czech government-appointed attorney "under the undue influence of … U.S. Agencies" during the initial phase of his detention. She said India and the United States were "going back and forth to blame each other for their foreign policy".

Prosecutors said that hours after the assassination of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada on June 18, 2023, the unnamed Indian government agent sent Gupta a “video clip that showed Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle.”

Hours later, according to the indictment, the Indian government agent sent Gupta the street address of Pannun. The same person messaged Gupta two days later, saying that the assassination of Pannun was a “priority now.”

The RAW officers and Gupta were not aware they were communicating, to kill Pannun, with a US federal agent.

In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” that agents of the Indian government were behind Nijjar’s killing.

The Justice Department alleges that Gupta, 52, is an associate of an Indian government “senior field officer” and that together they and others helped plot the assassination of Pannun.

In November, Justice Department officials announced charges against Gupta after he was arrested in June in the Czech Republic. They said he would face extradition to New York.

Prosecutors said that Gupta has claimed to be a drug and weapons trafficker who thought he was contacting a hitman but that it turned out he was speaking with a source for the Drug Enforcement Administration. The source connected Gupta with a purported hitman who was actually an undercover DEA officer, according to an indictment.

DEA and FBI officials have said Gupta offered to pay $100,000 for the murder and provided surveillance photos of the alleged target in June 2023.

Around that time in Canada, on June 18, gunmen shot and killed another Sikh separatist leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia. Nijjar was a close ally of Pannun.

Investigators said that after the killing, Gupta boasted to the undercover officer that Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets” and that he said he wanted the operation in New York to proceed soon.

India’s foreign ministry has called allegations the Indian government was involved in plotting assassinations in Canada or the US “absurd.”

Nikhil Gupta will appear in court Monday on federal murder-for-hire charges, a US District Court spokesman told US media.