New York (AP) – An Indian government official directed Conspiracy to murder a prominent Sikh separatist leader While in New York City, United States prosecutors on Wednesday announced charges against a man they said was part of a failed plot.
U.S. officials learned in the spring of a plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who advocated the creation of a sovereign Sikh state and is considered a terrorist by the Indian government. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration intervened and set up a sting in which an undercover agent posed as the hitman after the conspirators had recruited an international narcotics trafficker in a plot to kill the worker for $100,000.
The Indian government official was neither charged nor named in the indictment unsealed Wednesday, but described him as a "senior field officer" with security management and intelligence responsibilities, who said He is said to have previously served in the Central Reserve Police Force of India.
Charges were leveled against a separate individual: Nikhil Gupta, 52, a citizen of India, who was charged with murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire. The charges carry a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
The indictment says Gupta was recruited in May by an unidentified Indian government employee to plot the murder of Pannun, identified only as "the victim" in court papers.
Gupta contacts a criminal associate to help him find a hitman to carry out the murder, but the person turns out to be a confidential source working with the DEA. The indictment says the confidential source introduced Gupta to an alleged hitman, who was actually a DEA agent.
In June, the Indian government employee gave Gupta Pannun's home address, his phone number, and details about his daily conduct, including surveillance photos, which Gupta gave to an undercover DEA agent, the indictment said. Is.
It said Gupta instructed the undercover agent to carry out the assassination as quickly as possible, without conflicting with anticipated engagements between high-level US and Indian officials.
"The defendants conspired from India right here in New York City to murder an Indian-American citizen who publicly advocated the establishment of a sovereign state for the Sikhs, an ethnic religious minority group in India," said US Attorney Damien Williams. Is." the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan said in a news release.
He said, "We will not tolerate attempts to assassinate American citizens on American soil and stand ready to investigate, thwart, and prosecute anyone who seeks to harm and silence Americans here or abroad." Are."
The allegations were the second major recent allegation of complicity by Indian government officials in assassination attempts against Sikh separatists living in North America.
In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there are credible allegations that the Indian government was related to the murder that took place in that country Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, But India rejected this allegation calling it absurd Canada expels a top Indian diplomat And India responded with the same measure.
According to the indictment, Gupta told an undercover DEA agent in Canada the day after Nijjar's murder that Nijjar also "was a target" and "we have a lot of targets."
Before the US indictment was unsealed on Wednesday, India had announced it had set up a high-level investigation after US officials raised concerns about information already available about a plot to kill Pannun.
When the US shared some information, India took it seriously, "since they were also impinging on our national security interests, and the relevant departments had already... "We were investigating the issue."
Prosecutors said Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30 through a bilateral extradition treaty between the US and the Czech Republic. It was not immediately clear when he might be extradited to the United States and whether he has secured legal representation there.
The matter is particularly sensitive given the high priority given by US President Joe Biden Improving relations with India and encouraged it to become a major partner to counter China's growing aggression in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, said Washington's bet on India as a strategic partner to counter China would likely prevent a bilateral crisis.
“In most cases, if Washington accuses a foreign government of carrying out a killing on its soil, U.S. relations with that government will be in jeopardy. But relations with India are a special case. ...It is notable that once the administration found out, it did not reduce engagement with India. High level meetings took place as per schedule.
But if the administration is under pressure from the public or Capitol Hill to take a tough stance, it will be difficult to ignore, Kugelman said.
The White House declined to comment directly on the allegations against Gupta, but said administration officials took immediate action.
“When we were made aware of the fact that the defendant in this case had credibly indicated that he was instructed to arrange the murder by a person who is believed to be an employee of the Government of India, we took this information into consideration. Took it very seriously and kept at it. White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement: “We have engaged directly with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concerns.”
Trudeau said in a statement that Canadian officials had been working closely with US officials since August, and reiterated that "India needs to take this seriously."
Has been the leading organizer of Pannun so called khalistan referendum, inviting Sikhs around the world to vote on whether the Indian state of Punjab should become an independent nation based on religion. He is also the General Counsel of the organization Sikhs for Justice, which was banned by India in 2019.
"I'm not afraid of physical death," Pannun said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. If that's the price of campaigning for an independent Sikh state, then "I'm willing to pay that price," he said.
Pannun said that he never used violence to achieve his goals.
He also referred to the killing of Nijjar in Canada, saying, "India has proved that they believe in stopping violence and bullets."
According to a senior administration official, the White House first became aware of the plot in late July.
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 his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval and stressed that India should There needs to be an investigation and those responsible held accountable. Sullivan also said the United States needs assurances that this will not happen again, the official said, otherwise it could permanently damage the trust established between our two countries.
Biden then asked CIA Director William Burns to contact his counterpart and travel to India to make it clear that the United States will not tolerate such activities.
Biden also raised the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when they met at the Group 20 summit in New Delhi in September.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan met with Secretary of State S. Had raised this issue with Jaishankar.
In October, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haynes traveled to India to share information with Indian officials to aid in the internal investigation.
Sharma reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani and Eric Tucker in Washington, Rob Gillies in Toronto, Krutika Pathy in New Delhi and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Brussels contributed to this report.