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regular-article-logo Sunday, 03 March 2024

'Finish him brother, finish him, don't take too much time': A murder-for-hire plot revealed in US court

US charges link Indian govt employee to Nijjar murder and multiple North American assassination plans

Paran Balakrishnan Published 30.11.23, 08:28 AM
Representational image

Representational image File image

An Indian government employee offered $100,000 to a contract killer to assassinate a prominent Sikh separatist activist living in New York City, US prosecutors say.

The hitman hired in the thwarted plot to murder the US citizen turned out to be an undercover agent with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, according to a criminal indictment filed in a New York district court.

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The official was “employed by the Indian government” and with drug dealer named Nikhil Gupta (nicknamed Nick) “directed a plot to assassinate, on US soil, an attorney and political activist, who is a U.S. citizen of Indian origin residing in New York City,” the indictment says.

The intended target (not identified by name in the indictment) is believed to have been Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer and a vociferous Khalistan advocate who is considered a terrorist by the Indian government. The US government learned of the plot in the spring and set up a sting to foil it.

“Finish him brother, finish him, don't take too much time,” Gupta allegedly told one person involved in the plot.

The indictment, unsealed Wednesday, described the official as a ‘Senior Field Officer’ with responsibilities in ‘Security Management’ and ‘Intelligence.’ The job description of the official, who was only identified by the initials CC-1, would suggest that the official belonged to one of the Indian government’s intelligence agencies.

The US held extensive discussions with India about the alleged attempted killing and CIA Director William J. Burns made an official visit to New Delhi in August. He was followed in October by US Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines.

“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,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.

Before the US indictment was unsealed, India announced it had set up a high-level inquiry into the US allegations.

The US chargesheet also described CC-1 as a policeman or former policeman who had been, “previously serving in India's Central Reserve Police Force, and receiving ';officer training' in 'battle craft' and 'weapons.' CC-1 was employed at all times relevant to this Indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, and directed the assassination plot from India.”

The indictment added that, “about May 2023, CC-1 recruited Gupta to orchestrate the assassination of the person described as (the "Victim"). The Victim.” The government official is not named in the indictment but allegedly gave Gupta the target’s home address, phone numbers and details of his daily routine. The Indian government employee and Gupta allegedly spoke repeatedly and also met in New Delhi, the indictment says.

The charges only name Gupta who is accused of murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. The charges carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

“The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a US citizen of Indian origin,” US Attorney Damian Williams, chief Manhattan federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said . “We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate US citizens on US soil," he added.

The chargesheet also links CC-1 with the June killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar by two gunmen in June in a gurdwara parking lot in British Columbia. The murder has caused a deep rift in India’s relations with Canada. Allegations by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September that the Indian government was connected to Nijjar’s murder were dismissed by New Delhi as “absurd.”

The US indictment alleges that one hour after Nijjar was killed, CC-1 “sent Gupta a video clip that showed Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle.” On June 19, the day after Nijjar was gunned down, the US indictment alleges Gupta added: “Nijjar ‘was also the target’ and ‘We have so many targets.’ ”

Gupta also said that in the light of the Nijjar killing "there was 'now no need to wait’ on killing the Victim” and told him to “do it quickly,” the indictment says. Around this time, CC-1 told Gupta that there was a, “target in New York and another target in California.” Movie-style, Gupta replied, “We will hit all our targets.”

Gupta, according to the indictment, had criminal cases against him in India, and CC-1 promised these would be all dropped. Gupta is described in the indictment as a drugs and weapons trafficker. On May 12 CC-1, who was speaking from a Delhi phone, said Gupta’s case, “has already been taken care of,” and that “nobody from the Gujarat police is calling,”

Gupta, once given the green signal, attempted to hire an accomplice described in the case as CS who was actually in touch with US law enforcement operatives. CS, in turn, hired a person named as UC, who was a US law enforcement operative, to carry out the hit job. After negotiations, Gupta and CS agreed to pay the would-be hitman $100,000 to carry out the job out of which $15,000 would be paid in advance.

“CS introduced Gupta to a purported hitman, who was in fact an undercover US law enforcement officer,” the chargesheet says. One question that arises immediately is where CC-1 received so much money to offer such payments? UC is said to have filmed the $15,000 changing hands in the front seat of an automobile in Manhattan. A video call with Gupta also took place during the cash handover and Gupta freely told UC where he was speaking from.

Gupta left the US, most probably after it became clear the plot had fallen apart. But around June 30, he was arrested in the Czech Republic at the request of the US for his alleged participation in the murder plot. He's now awaiting extradition. Earlier, Gupta and CC-1 are said to have held several phone and e-mail conversations and also met in person in New Delhi. During one conversation, CC-1 noted that the intended victim was a lawyer and that the killer could pose as a potential client.

In June, Gupta instructed CS to stall any killing plans for the next few days. This could have been because Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a three-day visit to Washington at the end of June and high-level discussions were taking place between Indian and US officials. If Pannun had been killed at the time, it could have spoilt the atmosphere of the talks.

However, Gupta appeared to have made no effort to maintain secrecy and around June 12, UC, who was in touch with US agents, received a video call from Gupta from what looked like a conference room. Gupta panned the camera around the conference table to three other men, “in business attire,” and added, "We are all counting on you."

According to the indictment, Gupta assured CS and UC that the murder would change their lives because, “We will give more bigger jobs, more, more jobs every month, every month 2-3 jobs.” Gupta around June 12 told CS there was a “big target” in Canada. He added on June 14 that, “We will be needing one good team in Canada also.” Nijjar was shot in his car on June 18.

The indictment says Gupta told the US police informant in an audio call that they had four jobs” to finish before June 29 – one in New York and “three in Canada.”

Gupta warned UC that their target might become more careful in the wake of the Nijjar killing but added, with a true filmi flourish, “If there are two guys with him in the meeting or something….put everyone down, put everyone down.”

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