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U.S. says alleged murder plotter from India spoke of three 'jobs' in Canada

OTTAWA — A U.S. indictment says a man plotting to assassinate a Sikh activist in New York also discussed the murder of Canadian Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia in June, and said there were three more "jobs" that needed to be carried out in Canada that month.

American prosecutors say Nikhil Gupta, 52, was recruited to arrange the U.S. killing by an Indian government employee, and agreed to pay an undercover officer who he thought was a hit man US$100,000 to kill the activist.

The murder-for-hire indictment against Gupta, an Indian national, says he told the undercover officer that Nijjar "was also the target," and because he was dead, there was "no need to wait" on the next killing.

The indictment was unsealed Wednesday in Manhattan Federal Court.

The alleged New York target isn't named in the document, but has previously been identified by U.S. officials as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who is involved in organizing unofficial referendums on Sikh independence.

The description of the case against Gupta comes just over two months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Parliament there were "credible allegations" linking Nijjar's killing to India's government, claims that New Delhi called absurd.

The indictment says Gupta told the undercover officer the day after Nijjar's murder outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C., that "we have so many targets."

It says the plot was directed by an Indian government employee who has described himself as a "senior field officer" with responsibilities in "security management" and "intelligence."

Trudeau said Wednesday that Canadian authorities have been working closely with their American counterparts since August in relation to the assertion about Indian government involvement in Nijjar's killing.

"The news coming out of the United States further underscores what we've been talking about from the very beginning, which is that India needs to take this seriously. The Indian government needs to work with us to ensure that we’re getting to the bottom of this,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

"This is not something that anyone can take lightly. Our responsibility is to keep Canadians safe, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do."

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Wednesday the U.S. indictment "confirms that Canada is not alone at managing these particular threats."

"What's important for us is the government of Canada and agencies like the RCMP and the intelligence service do everything that they can to protect Canadians, but also to hold accountable those who murdered a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil."

Pannun said Wednesday that the Indian government wants to kill him because of his role organizing the Sikh referendums, extending overseas "its policy of violently crushing" the movement.

"For me, it's not (an) indictment against Nikhil Gupta. The indictment is against (the) Indian prime minister," he said in an interview.

Pannun called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a "human rights violator" with a "track record of using violence to suppress criticism and dissenting political opinion."

He would not say whether American authorities had previously warned him of threats to his life.

Both Pannun and Nijjar were prominent members of Sikhs for Justice, the group organizing the referendums on the establishment of an independent Sikh state.

"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 in a statement.

Representatives of the High Commission of India in Ottawa and the Consulate General of India in Vancouver did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the indictment.

Gupta has been charged with murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire.

"The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a news release.

Czech authorities arrested and detained Gupta on June 30 in the Czech Republic through a bilateral extradition treaty between the U.S. and the Czech Republic, according to the release. It was not immediately clear when he might be brought to the United States.

The unnamed Indian government employee recruited Gupta last May to orchestrate the assassination, the indictment says.

In June, the Indian government employee gave Gupta the home address of Pannun, his phone numbers and details about his daily conduct, including surveillance photographs, which Gupta then passed along to the undercover agent, the indictment says.

It says Gupta directed the undercover agent to carry out the murder as soon as possible, but also warned the agent not to commit the killing around the time of anticipated engagements between high-level U.S. and Indian officials.

It said Gupta told a confidential source "that before the '29th [of June] we have to finish four jobs,' i.e.: the victim and, after that, 'three in Canada.'"

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said little Wednesday about the unfolding murder-for-hire plot and its echoes of a similar investigation in Canada.

"When it comes to what’s happening in the U.S., I won’t comment directly because, of course, I respect the work that the American law enforcement agencies are doing and I respect also the independence of their legal system," she said.

"We stand by our own credible allegations that there was the killing of a Canadian, on Canadian soil, linking to Indian agents."

British Columbia Premier David Eby said during an unrelated news conference on Wednesday that if there is credible information about a threat to lives of people in Canada from a foreign government, then the province needs that information to be able to respond.

He said the information from the United States is just another reminder of how vulnerable our international relationships can be.

"We're a small trade dependent jurisdiction. Canada's relationship with the rest of the world has a disproportionate impact on British Columbia. Tensions between the U.S. and China and Canada, and China and Canada and India have impacts on trade for us."

The White House declined to comment directly on the charges against Gupta, but stressed administration officials acted quickly.

"When we were made aware of the fact that the defendant in this case had credibly indicated that he was directed to arrange the murder by an individual who is assessed to be an employee of the Indian Government, we took this information very seriously and engaged in direct conversations with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concern," White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

— By Brenna Owen in Vancouver, With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.

The Canadian Press