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U.S. says alleged murder plotter was directed by India and mentioned B.C. killing

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U.S. officials have charged an Indian national in a plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist on American soil – in a case they say is connected to the slaying of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York announced Wednesday that Nikhil Gupta has been charged with one count of murder-for-hire and one count of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire allegedly directed by an employee of the Indian government earlier this year.

“As alleged, 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 statement.

"We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, and stand ready to investigate, thwart, and prosecute anyone who seeks to harm and silence Americans here or abroad.”

The intended victim is not named in the news release, but is described as a "vocal critic of the Indian government" who "leads a U.S.-based organization that advocates for the secession of Punjab, a state in northern India that is home to a large population of Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India."

A man named Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who has organized referendums on Sikh independence – including in B.C. – tells CTV News he was the intended target of the plot.

"This is the home of the brave and the land of the free. This is America. We don't fear death,” he said when asked if he fears more attempts on his life.

Pannun was a close friend of Nijjar and worked with him on Sikh activism.

During the federal investigation, Gupta was introduced to someone he believed to be a hitman, but who was actually an undercover officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Gupta, at the behest of the Indian government employee, allegedly agreed to pay $100,000 to have the intended victim murdered in New York City.

On June 9 – nine days before Nijjar would be gunned down outside of a gurdwara in Surrey, B.C. – Gupta arranged for the would-be hitman to be paid $15,000 in cash, prosecutors allege.

A photo embedded in the unsealed indictment appears to be taken with a hidden camera and shows a large wad of US $100 bills being exchanged.

Prosecutors describe the photo as showing the moment a courier delivered the $15,000 down payment to the undercover agent.

A photo embedded in the unsealed indictment appears to be taken with a hidden camera and shows a large wad of US $100 bills being exchanged.The day after Nijjar was killed, Gupta allegedly told the undercover officer that the B.C. leader “was also the target” and “we have so many targets.” Gupta also allegedly told the officer that there was “now no need to wait” on the slaying of the intended victim in the U.S.

The indictment alleges Gupta had video of Nijjar taken just after he was shot and killed.

“Just hours after the Nijjar murder, CC-1 sent GUPTA a video clip that showed Nijjar's bloody body slumped in his vehicle,” the indictment says.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the Canadian government has seen "credible allegations" that agents of the Indian government were behind the killing of Nijjar. That comment ratcheted up tensions between the countries that included the pulling of diplomats and the suspension of visa services. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie 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.”

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc deflected a barrage of questions about the indictment Wednesday as he arrived on Parliament Hill.

“I'm not going to discuss the details of what evidence has or hasn't been handed over by a Canadian police agency to an international partner,” he said.

“What I can say is that our expectation - and the prime minister said this in his first comments in September - is that the Indian government be fully engaged with Canadian law in this investigation.”

As for Pannun, he says the threats to his life will not deter his work seeking a separate Sikh state within India.

"We, the Sikhs, we do not fear physical death. Because killing me is not going to solve the underlying contentious issue,” he said. "Killing me by the Indian government will produce a hundred thousand more Pannun's. It's not going to stop."

With files from The Canadian Press

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