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'Attempts to harm Americans will not be tolerated,' says US after extradition of Nikhil Gupta for Pannun murder plot

Gupta was arrested and detained in the Czech Republic on June 30, 2023, at the request of the United States government on charges of being involved in a plot to assassinate Khalistani separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York.
Last Updated : 18 June 2024, 02:40 IST

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New Delhi: Attempts to silence or harm Americans would not be tolerated, President Joe Biden’s administration said after the Czech Republic extradited an Indian, Nikhil Gupta, to the United States. Gupta is accused of plotting an assassination attempt on a Khalistani Sikh extremist in New York.

The US Justice Department went on to say that the murder-for-hire plot allegedly orchestrated by an employee of the Government of India was “a brazen attempt to silence a political activist for exercising a quintessential American right: his freedom of speech”. The American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stated that it would continue to work with its partners at home and abroad to protect the US citizens and their “sacred rights”.

The tough talks from Washington DC came even as the covert operations allegedly planned or carried out by the external intelligence agencies of India came under the public glare, not only in the US, but also in Canada and Australia.

New Delhi’s relations with Ottawa nosedived after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged that the agents of the Government of India had a role in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a fugitive Khalistani Sikh extremist, in Canada in June 2023. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported this week that at least four intelligence officers of India had been asked to leave Australia in 2020 after they had been caught allegedly attempting to access 'sensitive defence technology and airport security protocols'.

Nikhil Gupta, who had been arrested almost a year ago on June 30 2023, was shifted from Prague Pankrác Remand Prison in the capital of the Czech Republic to the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn in the United States last Saturday. Gupta was accused by US agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), of hiring a hitman to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a leader of the Khalistani Sikh organisation, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), in New York at the behest of an intelligence officer of the Government of India. He was extradited to the US on June 14.

Gupta was presented before the Magistrate Judge James Cott of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York on Monday. He pleaded not guilty. The court set June 28 as the date for the next hearing. His attorney Jeffrey Chabrowe told the judge that his client was a vegetarian but was not being provided with vegetarian food at the detention facility.

Some SFJ activists gathered in front of the court when Gupta was presented before Magistrate Judge Cott, with one of them waving a flag of Khalistan, the separate Sikh homeland that the secessionists want to carve out from India.

“This extradition makes clear that the Justice Department will not tolerate attempts to silence or harm American citizens,” US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said. “Nikhil Gupta will now face justice in an American courtroom for his involvement in an alleged plot, directed by an employee of the Indian government, to target and assassinate a US citizen for his support of the Sikh separatist movement in India. I am grateful to the Department’s agents who foiled this assassination plot and to our Czech partners for their assistance in this arrest and extradition.”

Gupta had been arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30 following an extradition request by the US. A few weeks later, the US had formally requested the Czech Republic to extradite him. The Municipal Court in Prague had then ruled in favour of his extradition. Czech Justice Minister Pavel Blažek on June 6 approved his extradition after he exhausted all legal options.

The US prosecutors on November 29 last year alleged that Gupta had been an associate of an official of an agency of the Government of India and the official had engaged him to hire a hitman to assassinate Pannun, the general counsel of the secessionist organization Sikhs for Justice.

“This murder-for-hire plot — allegedly orchestrated by an Indian government employee to kill a US citizen in New York City — was a brazen attempt to silence a political activist for exercising a quintessential American right: his freedom of speech,” US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

“The extradition of the defendant is a vital step toward justice, and I am grateful to our Czech partners for their assistance in this matter. We will continue working relentlessly to identify, disrupt, and hold accountable those who seek to harm American citizens here or abroad.”

“This defendant has been extradited for his alleged role in a plot to assassinate a US citizen on American soil,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The FBI will not tolerate attempts by foreign nationals, or anyone else for that matter, to repress constitutionally protected freedoms in the US. We will continue to work with our partners at home and abroad to protect our citizens and these sacred rights.”

The US Justice Department did not publicly identify the Government of India official whom it accused of asking Gupta to hire a hitman to kill Pannun. But the Washington Post in a report in April claimed that the official was Vikram Yadav who worked for the Research and Analytical Wing (RAW) – the external intelligence agency of India.

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Published 18 June 2024, 02:40 IST

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