Updated Nov 29, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Indian national charged in foiled assassination plot targeting U.S. citizen: DOJ

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaking on Nov. 21.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaking on Nov. 21. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

An Indian national was charged on Wednesday over an alleged plot directed by an Indian government employee to assassinate a U.S. citizen in New York, the Department of Justice announced.

Why it matters: The foiled plot targeted an attorney who advocated for a secession state for Sikhs in India. The allegations follow similar claims made by the Canadian government earlier this year in the killing of a prominent Sikh community leader on Canadian soil.

  • Those allegations led to a major diplomatic crisis between Ottawa and New Delhi, with India's government suspending visa services for Canadian nationals and ordering Canada to remove dozens of its diplomats, AP reported.
  • The fresh allegations from the U.S. may strain relations with New Delhi at a time when Washington is relying on India to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
  • The Embassy of India in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment on the charges announced Wednesday.

Driving the news: The Justice Department alleged that Nikhil Gupta, 52, participated in the thwarted murder-for-hire conspiracy that targeted a U.S.-based attorney and leader of Sikh separatist movement in India.

  • He was charged with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, which both carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
  • Gupta, who resides in India, was recruited in May by an "Indian government employee," who, working together with other people in India and elsewhere, helped direct the scheme, per DOJ.
  • His involvement was discovered after he, at the direction of the unidentified Indian government employee, contacted someone he believed was a criminal but was a confidential source working with U.S. law enforcement.
  • Gupta was arrested by Czech Republic authorities in June before being extradited to the U.S., the DOJ said.

The confidential source then referred Gupta to a U.S. law enforcement officer who was undercover and posing as a hitman in Manhattan.

  • Gupta agreed to pay $100,000 for the killing, according to the DOJ.
  • The Indian government employee asked Gupta to provide progress updates. He forwarded surveillance photographs of the victim and other personal details about them.

Of note: When Gupta directed the undercover agent to carry out the murder, he specifically instructed them not to commit it close to when high-level U.S. officials were expected to meet with Indian government officials, per DOJ.

  • Less than two weeks after Gupta arranged a $15,000 advanced payment for the killing, President Biden welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to White House.
  • During the visit, Modi, in a rare press conference, denied allegations that discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting Indian's Muslim population and other religious minorities have occurred during his premiership.
  • Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines traveled to India in recent months and raised the thwarted plot with Indian officials there, according to the Financial Times, which first reported on the conspiracy.

The big picture: In September, Canada alleged that India's government was involved in the shooting of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen.

  • The DOJ said on Wednesday that Nijjar was an associate of the victim of the foiled assassination plot in New York.
  • On June 19, a day after Nijjar's murder, Gupta told the undercover agent that Nijjar "was also the target" and "we have so many targets."
  • The U.S. and the United Kingdom expressed concerns about Canada's allegations and said they must be thoroughly investigated, but the countries did not publicly back Canada's findings, which India vehemently denied.

Editor's note: This story was updated with additional details and background.

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