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Indian national accused in alleged assassination plot against Khalistani pleads not guilty

NRI PULSE STAFF REPORT & IANS

New York City, June 17, 2024: Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national accused of plotting to kill a Sikh separatist leader, pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan federal court on Monday.

pta, an Indian national accused of plotting to kill a Sikh separatist leader, pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan federal court on Monday.

Gupta, 52, was extradited from the Czech Republic and arrived in the U.S. on Friday. He is charged with attempting to hire a hitman to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh separatist leader who holds dual US-Canadian citizenship.

US prosecutors claim Gupta acted under the direction of an unnamed Indian government official, an allegation that India denies.

Dressed in a blue sweater and black Nike sweatpants, Gupta appeared in court at 12:30 PM EDT. His lawyer, Jeff Chabrowe, entered the plea of “not guilty” on his behalf after waiving the reading of the indictment.

Prosecutors requested that Gupta be held in a detention center until his trial. Chabrowe indicated they would file a bail application later, resulting in Gupta’s continued detention for now. Chabrowe also raised concerns about Gupta’s treatment in custody, noting that he had not received a vegetarian meal since his arrival at a Brooklyn facility and needed accommodations for prayer.

The arraignment lasted 20 minutes, and further details will be addressed in subsequent court sessions.

Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30 last year and the US had asked for his extradition.

His extradition was held up by his appeal to the Czech Constitutional Court earlier this year against his extradition, which was rejected last month clearing the way for him to be sent to the US.

The alleged plot raised concerns in the US because an Indian police officer is accused of masterminding it.

According to court documents, Gupta, who also uses the name “Nick”, is charged with participating in a plot with an unnamed Indian “senior field officer” to “assassinate the leader of a “US-based organization that advocates for the secession of Punjab state” and the establishment of a “Sikh sovereign state called Khalistan”.

Pannu is designated as a terrorist by the Indian government.

In a filing in the New York court in January, Gupta’s lawyer Jeffrey Chabrowe said that according to his family’s media interviews he “faces basic human rights violations while in custody in Prague” and was kept in “extended” solitary confinement without consular access.

According to the charging document in the court, Gupta was recruited by the “senior field officer” to “orchestrate the assassination.”

He, in turn, the document said, contacted a person he believed was a “criminal associate, but was, in fact, a “confidential source working with US law enforcement”.

That person introduced him to a “purported hitman” who was an undercover US law enforcement officer who was offered $100,000 to carry out the assassination, the document said.

Gupta arranged for an advance of $15,000 to be delivered by an associate to the presumed “hitman”, who was also given details about Pannun and also told him that a Canada-based Khalistan leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was killed in British Columbia had been a “target”, according to the document.

The prosecution said that he had himself described his “involvement in narcotics and weapons trafficking” and asked the “senior field officer’s” help in getting cases against him in India dismissed.

Gupta’s lawyer Charbrowe asked the court in January to compel the prosecution to provide more details about the case to the defence to enable it to defend him.

He said that according to Gupta’s Czech lawyer Petr Slepica, the defendant had been interviewed several times by “groups of senior US officials” while the lawyer has not been given any documents about the case except for indictment – the charging document.

Federal Judge Victor Marrero dismissed the request saying that under the Rules of Criminal Procedure, the prosecution has 14 days after Gupta is produced in court to give the information to the defence.

State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said in April that “we have made clear to the government of India that we want to see them conduct a full investigation, and we continue to look forward to the results of that investigation”.

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