A newly unsealed U.S. criminal indictment has unleashed an unprecedented flood of details about an alleged plot connected to the Indian government to carry out multiple assassinations in North America.
Perhaps the most surprising allegation in the murder-for-hire indictment filed in New York State against Indian national Nikhil Gupta is a claim that there were plans to carry out three such killings on Canadian soil.
The indictment, made public Wednesday, accuses Gupta of attempting this year to arrange one killing in New York after receiving instructions from an Indian government employee.
While the charges involve an alleged scheme in New York City, U.S. prosecutors allege it's connected to a case that roiled Canada-India relations.
In a related development Wednesday, the Indian government announced it will conduct a high-level inquiry into the U.S. allegations.
The indictment says an unnamed Indian government employee offered $100,000 for a contract hit on a Sikh separatist in New York and asked Gupta, 52, to arrange it.
The Indian government employee is not named in the indictment, but he is described as having held different roles, including intelligence, security management and in India's Central Reserve Police Force.
'Finish him brother'
As part of the deal, he allegedly offered Gupta an additional favour. The indictment describes Gupta as a drug and weapons trafficker and says the purported Indian government employee promised he could make criminal charges against him disappear.
Gupta subsequently contacted someone he believed was a hitman without knowing he was an undercover officer with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, says the indictment.
"Finish him brother, finish him, don't take too much time," Gupta allegedly told one person involved in the plot — a DEA informant who introduced him to the undercover officer.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet in the White House in June. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
The indictment says Gupta told the would-be killer around June to carry out the assassination as quickly as possible — but not at a sensitive political moment.
The indictment alleges Gupta said he did not want the killing to happen around the time of a high-level U.S.-India political meeting. That period coincides with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's June 2023 visit to Washington.
But things changed on June 18, when masked gunmen murdered Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia, says the indictment.
Indictment mentions 3 'jobs' in Canada
The indictment alleges the Indian government employee said the killing had accelerated the timetable for the assassination in New York — "It's [a] priority now," he allegedly texted.
Gupta allegedly sent his supposed contract killer a video of Nijjar's body and told him to "do it quickly."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks past Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi's cremation site, during the G20 Summit in New Delhi, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The indictment says Gupta told the police informant in an audio call that they had "four jobs" to finish before June 29 — one in New York and "three in Canada."
CBC News has reported that Canadian authorities amassed both human and signals intelligence — including communications involving Indian officials — before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped the bombshell allegation in the House of Commons in September that the Indian government was connected to Nijjar's killing.
That allegation triggered a diplomatic rift with India.
Modi has track record of violence, alleged target says
Last week, the Financial Times reported that U.S. officials had filed a criminal indictment and thwarted a similar plot against Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a citizen of the U.S. and Canada.
Pannum is not named in the indictment unsealed Wednesday, but the facts of the case match the reporting in the Financial Times, and he issued a statement Wednesday identifying himself as the target.
In the statement, he accused the Indian government of attempting to kill him and others, for pushing the idea of an independence referendum in Punjab.
"This is an indictment against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a known human-rights violator who has a track record of using violence to suppress criticism and dissenting political opinion," Pannum said.
"India under Modi has extended to the foreign soils its policy of violently crushing the Sikhs movement for right to self-determination."
In the view of the Indian government, North America has become a safe haven for violent separatists who are a danger to India, pointing to the Air India bombing that killed 329 people in 1985.
Wednesday's unsealing came months after the indictment was filed.
Around June 30, Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic, at the request of the United States. He faces two counts of murder for hire.
Canadian ministers respond
There have not been charges laid in Canada over Nijjar's killing.
Asked about the case Wednesday, Canada's public safety minister expressed confidence in the criminal process. Dominic LeBlanc also said Canadian and American officials have been co-operating closely.
"I have every confidence … that the RCMP are doing the rigorous, important work that we expect of them," he told reporters in Ottawa.
"We're going to let them conclude their investigation."
Canada's foreign minister was asked a related question Wednesday: Why had U.S. authorities managed to thwart a purported assassination, when Canada had not?
Mélanie Joly said she would not comment on a U.S. criminal case but added she expected more from India, which has expelled dozens of Canadian diplomats.
"Clearly, we expect more co-operation on their part. And more engagement on their part," Joly said from Brussels, where she was attending a NATO meeting.