Indian suspect in plot to kill Sikh separatist pleads not guilty in US court

Indian suspect in plot to kill Sikh separatist pleads not guilty in US court

An Indian man suspected by the US of involvement in an unsuccessful plot to kill a Sikh separatist on American soil has pleaded not guilty to murder-for-hire conspiracy charges in a federal court in Manhattan.

Nikhil Gupta, 52, has been accused by US federal prosecutors of plotting with an Indian government official to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a US resident who has advocated for a sovereign Sikh state in northern India.

Last June Gupta travelled from India to Prague and was arrested by Czech authorities. A Czech court last month rejected his petition to avoid being sent to the US, and he was extradited on Friday.

At a hearing on Monday in Manhattan, Magistrate Judge Cott ordered Gupta, 52, to be detained at least until the next conference in his case on 28 June.

Jeffrey Chabrowe, Gupta’s defense lawyer, said it was important not to rush to conclusions.

“This is a complex matter for both of our countries,” Chabrowe told reporters after the hearing.

“Background and details will develop that may cast government allegations into an entirely new light.”

The discovery of alleged assassination plots against Sikh separatists in the US and Canada has tested relations with India, seen by western nations as a counter to China’s rising global influence. India’s government denies involvement in such plots.

Canada said in September that its intelligence agencies were pursuing allegations linking India’s government to the murder of the Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June 2023 in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

In November, US authorities said an Indian government official had directed the plot in the attempted murder of Pannun, who is a US and Canadian citizen. Gupta is accused of involvement in that plot.

Pannun told Reuters on Sunday that while the extradition was a welcome step, “Nikhil Gupta is just a foot soldier”. He alleged that those who hired Gupta were senior members of the Indian government who acted on the direction of the prime minister, Narendra Modi.

India’s government has dissociated itself from the alleged plot against Pannun, saying it was against government policy. It has said it would formally investigate security concerns raised by Washington.

New Delhi has long complained about Sikh separatist groups outside India, viewing them as security threats. The groups have kept alive the movement for Khalistan, a demand for an independent Sikh state to be carved out of India.

Last month Washington said it was satisfied so far with India’s moves to ensure accountability in the alleged plots but added that many steps still needed to be taken.-Reuters