WASHINGTON: The spotlight returned to India’s alleged attempts to intimidate and assassinate political dissidents on US soil, this week.

In New York this week, an Indian man accused of plotting to kill a Sikh separatist appeared before a federal court on Monday and pleaded not guilty. Nikhil Gupta was extradited from the Czech Republic on Friday for his alleged involvement in the attempted kidnapping of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Meanwhile, five prominent Democratic senators urged US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take appropriate diplomatic measures to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Nikhil Gupta appeared for the first time in a US court on Monday, after being extradited from the Czech Republic and landing in the US on Friday.

Plotter of Sikh leader’s killing appears in court; senators urge Blinken to take up issue as ‘core agenda item’ with new govt in Delhi

He is charged by US authorities with trying to hire a hitman to assassinate Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual US-Canadian citizen.

US prosecutors allege Gupta was directed by an unnamed Indian government official. India denies its involvement.

In November, US Justice Department officials announced charges against Gupta after he was arrested in June in the Czech Republic and requested his extradition to New York.

Prosecutors said that Gupta has claimed to be a drug and weapons trafficker who thought he was contacting a hitman but that it turned out he was speaking with a source for the Drug Enforcement Administration. The source connected Gupta with a purported hitman who was actually an undercover DEA officer, according to an indictment.

DEA and FBI officials have said Gupta offered to pay $100,000 for the murder and provided surveillance photos of the alleged target in June 2023.

Letter to Blinken

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week, five senators expressed their “deep concern about credible allegations of the Indian government’s involvement in a foiled plot to assassinate an American citizen on US soil, as well as reports of ongoing harassment and threats against Sikh Americans.”

Senators Jeffrey A. Merkley, Chris Van Hollen, Tim Kaine, Bernie Sanders, and Ron Wyden urged “a strong diplomatic response to ensure that all of those who were involved are held accountable,” and requested a briefing on the status of the Administration’s engagement with the Indian government on this matter.

The senators emphasized that they fully support the DOJ’s efforts to bring Gupta to justice and the Department of State’s prior statements on this subject but urged the administration to “match words with actions” to hold Indian officials involved in the plot accountable, and to send a clear message that there will be consequences for such behavior.

“It is imperative that we take an unequivocal stand against such a threat to the rights of a US citizen and violation of US sovereignty, which are examples of India’s increasingly irresponsible efforts to silence critics of its government among its diaspora around the world,” they wrote.

The requested briefing, they added, must include a discussion of how the Department of State intends to pursue follow-up action – to press the Indian government to hold those involved criminally accountable and to ensure the government does not repeat such acts of transnational repression.

“India must maintain its commitment to respecting human rights at home and abroad as it aspires to global leadership,” the senators wrote.

Now that India’s 2024 general election has concluded, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Modi returning to power, “the United States has an opportunity to include this issue as a core agenda item with the Indian government,” the senators added.

“The United States must be firm and resolute in opposing transnational repression, no matter the perpetrator,” they concluded.

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2024

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