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Prosecutors charge Indian man in attempted murder-for-hire plot against Sikh activist on US soil

Al Drago/Reuters/File

Originally Published: 29 NOV 23 11:24 ET Updated: 29 NOV 23 12:07 ET By Hannah Rabinowitz, Yong Xiong and Evan Perez, CNN

(CNN) — US federal prosecutors have charged an Indian national in an alleged murder-for-hire plot to try to assassinate a Sikh political activist in New York City, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday.

Authorities say Nikhil Gupta, 52, paid an undercover officer he believed to be a hitman $100,000 to target the victim, a US citizen who is unnamed in the indictment but described as an attorney and vocal critic of the Indian government.

US officials familiar with the case told CNN the victim is Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who runs a New York-based outfit called “Sikhs for Justice,” which has held referendums for a separate Khalistan state. The organization is considered unlawful in India, where its website is not accessible.

Gupta has been charged with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. He was arrested in June of this year in the Czech Republic and held pursuant to a bilateral extradition treaty, authorities said.

Authorities allege Gupta worked with an Indian government official, who described himself as “senior field officer” with intelligence responsibilities and “directed the assassination plot from India.”

Pannun said in a statement that the attempt on his life represents a “threat to freedom of speech and democracy,” as the case along with the recent assassination of another Sikh separatist on Canadian soil complicates relations between the US and India.

“The attempt on my life on American Soil is the blatant case of India’s transnational terrorism which has become a challenge to America’s sovereignty and threat to freedom of speech and democracy,” Pannun said. “If death is the cost for running the Khalistan Referendum, I am willing to pay that price.”

CNN is reaching out to the Indian government for a response.

Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was murdered in Canada in June, and the Canadian government said it had credible information linking India to the murder. The Indian government has denied the allegation.

Nijjar and Pannun were associates, US prosecutors say, as they were both leaders of the Sikh separatist movement. Just one day after Nijjar was killed, Gupta allegedly told a supposed hitman that Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets.”

According to the indictment, an Indian government official recruited Gupta to “orchestrate” the assassination. At the official’s direction, prosecutors say, Gupta contacted someone in June he believed to be a hitman – but who was actually working with law enforcement – to murder Pannun.

The Indian official gave Gupta Pannun’s home address, phone numbers and details on his daily activities, prosecutors allege. The official also sent Gupta a video of Nijjar’s “bloody body slumped in his vehicle” just hours after the murder occurred, according to the indictment.

Gupta asked the supposed hitman to carry out the murder “as soon as possible,” but instructed the hitman “not to commit the murder around the time of anticipated engagements scheduled to occur in the ensuing weeks between high-level U.S. and Indian government officials,” court documents say.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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