U.S. authorities say their investigation of a foiled scheme to kill a Canadian-American Sikh activist in New York has uncovered apparent links to the slaying of B.C. Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey earlier this year, as well as an alleged plot by the Indian government to conduct a string of assassinations in Canada.
A criminal indictment unsealed in New York Wednesday says a man accused of arranging the murder for hire of the U.S.-based Sikh activist told an undercover officer less than two weeks before Mr. Nijjar’s death that there was a “big target” in Canada.
The court document, which alleges that an Indian government employee was helping direct events, includes intercepted conversations talking of multiple assassination plots in North America to kill Sikh activists. Targets were not identified.
The alleged U.S. plot echoed the allegation by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September that the Indian government was behind the killing of Mr. Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader who was shot by masked gunmen outside a Surrey temple in June.
Mr. Trudeau on Wednesday said the U.S. indictment shows that he was correct when he levelled accusations against the Indian government.
“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,” he said.
Canada’s dispute with India has thrown a wrench in Ottawa’s plans to make the South Asian country the centrepiece of its new Indo-Pacific strategy, part of a move by Western countries to decrease their supply chain reliance on China and counter Beijing’s rising influence in the region.
The indictment does not name the U.S.-based Sikh activist who was targeted but the Washington Post quoted a senior Biden administration source as saying the intended victim was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for the New York-based Sikhs for Justice. The group is campaigning for the creation of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan to be carved out of northern India.
Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national who was arrested in the Czech Republic five months ago, was allegedly recruited by the Indian government employee to “orchestrate the assassination” of Mr. Pannun. The Indian agent described himself as a “senior field officer” who previously served in the country’s Central Reserve Police Force and had responsibilities in “security management” and “intelligence,” the indictment says.
The alleged Indian agent agreed to pay US$100,000 to a purported hitman, who was actually an undercover police officer, to kill Mr. Pannun in a deal brokered by Mr. Gupta, U.S. prosecutors allege. Mr. Gupta asked the hitman not to carry out the attack in early June because of planned high-level meetings between Indian and U.S. officials and the possibility of political fallout, they said.
A few days before Mr. Nijjar’s death that month, Mr. Gupta told an undercover officer – whom he thought was a criminal – that “we will be needing one good team in Canada” to carry out another assassination, according to the indictment filed by U.S. prosecutors. He also told the police officer that the plotters in India would be directing slayings in both countries. “We are doing their New York [and] Canada [job].”
Mr. Gupta later told the undercover officer that Mr. Nijjar was No. 4 or No. 3 among assassination targets in Canada and the United States.
A few hours after Mr. Nijjar was killed, he sent the officer a video clip that showed the blood-covered body slumped in his vehicle and said there was “now no need to wait” on killing Mr. Pannun.
Two days after Mr. Nijjar’s slaying, Mr. Gupta directed the undercover officer to move quickly on the American target and that by June 29 “we have to finish four jobs” – understood to mean four more targets, including the U.S. one and “three in Canada,” prosecutors said.
In contrast to the action by the U.S. Department of Justice, Canada has so far laid no charges in the death of Mr. Nijjar, nor has the RCMP announced any findings from its investigation into Mr. Nijjar’s slaying.
“From the month of August onwards, we have been working closely with our American counterparts, with partners around the world on the very serious allegations that we shared in September that we believe India was involved – agents of the government of India were involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Mr. Trudeau once again called on the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to co-operate with Canadian law enforcement to bring the killers to justice.
A spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, said New Delhi takes seriously the allegations presented by the U.S. and has set up an inquiry to investigate.
“During the course of discussions with the U.S. on bilateral security co-operation, the U.S. side shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others,” he said. “In this context, it is informed that on 18 November 2023, the Government of India constituted a high-level Enquiry Committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter.”
Mr. Bagachi did not address Canadian concerns about the killing of Mr. Nijjar and three other potential Canadian targets outlined in the U.S. indictment.
New Delhi has denied any involvement in Mr. Nijjar’s death and Mr. Trudeau’s allegations caused a deep diplomatic rift between India and Canada. India stripped 41 Canadian diplomats of their diplomatic protections in the South Asian country, forcing them to leave ahead of a deadline given by New Delhi.
Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma recently told The Globe and Mail that India has not been shown concrete evidence by Canada or Canada’s allies that Indian agents were involved in the June 18 slaying of Mr. Nijjar.
Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, said in a statement that the Indian government told the Biden administration it was “taking this seriously and would investigate.” The U.S. has been providing information to help with India’s investigation, she said.
It was not clear whether anything had so far come out of India’s investigation or what the result would be.
The assassination plots unfolded around the same time U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed Mr. Modi to the White House this past June, an appearance at which Mr. Biden praised India’s democracy. One week later, Mr. Gupta was arrested.
Mr. Gupta has been charged with murder for hire in connection with what U.S. prosecutors allege was a foiled plot to assassinate Mr. Pannun, as well as conspiracy to commit murder for hire. Both charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Mr. Gupta also told the purported hitman to expect the victim – identified by the White House as Mr. Pannun – to be more careful in the wake of the slaying of Mr. Nijjar.
“He will be more cautious, because in Canada, his colleague is down. His colleague is down. I sent you the video,” Mr. Gupta said, according to U.S. prosecutors. He told the purported hitman to “put everyone down” if Mr. Pannun was in a meeting when the hit took place.
The indictment said all alleged conversations were captured from surveilled telephone calls and electronic communications.
In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Pannun said that he has no doubt that he is the unnamed victim who was the alleged target of the New York murder conspiracy. He added that now that the plot has been exposed, it will only increase the desire among Sikhs for a separate state.
“If they want to kill me for the Khalistan referendum campaign, there will be one million Pannuns out there for the Khalistan referendum campaign,” Mr. Pannun said.
Speaking at a news conference in Brussels, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly was asked why U.S. authorities were able to prevent a murder-for-hire plot in May and June of this year but the RCMP were unable to stop the killing of Mr. Nijjar. Ms. Joly said she could not comment on the work being done by Canadian police.
Ms. Joly called on India to allow the return of the Canadian diplomats forced to leave.
“It is my hope that the 41 diplomats, who should be working right now in India, are allowed back,” she said.
Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization (WSO), said Canada failed Mr. Nijjar.
“I don’t know what happened here but it is clearly a failure on the part of the Canadian authorities. Nijjar being dead is a failure of Canadian law enforcement and security. They knew this was coming and they didn’t do anything to prevent it,” he said.
WSO President Danish Singh said the intercepted discussion of three more Sikhs in Canada being targeted for assassination is startling.
He said the full network that allegedly worked with Mr. Gupta, “including those in India, remains to be revealed,” he said. “It is clear that this network has ties to the Nijjar case. We call on Canadian authorities and law enforcement to bring those responsible for Nijjar’s assassination to justice as soon as possible and to clearly identify those involved in the plot in India and elsewhere.”