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U.S. announces charges against an Indian national over alleged assassination plan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. Justice Department announced charges today against an Indian national for allegedly taking part in a murder-for-hire scheme on American soil, a scheme orchestrated by an Indian government employee. The alleged plan was to assassinate an American citizen who is a leader in the Sikh separatist movement. Now, this announcement comes just months after Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, accused India's government of plotting to kill a Canadian citizen who was a Sikh separatist leader. Joining me to discuss this are NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department - hey, Ryan...

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: ...And our international affairs correspondent, Jackie Northam. Hey there.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hi. OK, so, Ryan, kick us off. There are a lot of strange parts to what I just described. We know this was announced today in New York - the case. We know one person has been charged. What do we know about that person who's been charged and who the target was?

LUCAS: Well, the defendant is a 52-year-old Indian national by the name of Nikhil Gupta. Court papers say he was previously involved with international drugs and weapons trafficking, and prosecutors say he played a leading role putting together this alleged murder-for-hire scheme. But he is the only one who's been charged. And the really interesting thing here is that the indictment says the plot, as a whole, was directed by someone else - by an Indian government employee described in the indictment as a senior field officer with intelligence responsibilities. That, of course, suggests the possible hand here of the Indian government. And the goal of this alleged plot was to murder, as you said, a Sikh activist in New York City. The activist is not named in the indictment, but we've learned that it was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. He's the general counsel for Sikhs for Justice. Pannun has also confirmed that he was the target, and he called this alleged plot a, quote, "blatant case of India's transnational terrorism."

KELLY: And what exactly was the alleged plot? What was supposed to go down?

LUCAS: Well, this whole thing came together pretty quickly earlier this year. Court papers say the Indian government employee recruited Gupta in May to orchestrate this murder. In return, the Indian official offered to get a criminal case in India against Gupta dismissed. But once Gupta was on board, he got to work quickly. Prosecutors say he contacted someone in the criminal underworld for help arranging a hit man in the U.S. to carry out this assassination. The problem was the person that Gupta contacted was, in fact, a confidential source for U.S. law enforcement.

KELLY: Aha.

LUCAS: That confidential source put Gupta in touch with a hit man, but that purported hit man was, in fact, an undercover DEA officer. The indictment says they ended up talking logistics and price, and, ultimately, the Indian government employee agreed to pay $100,000 for the murder. This is a price that was brokered by Gupta. Around this time, the Indian government employee also was passing along details on the target's home address, phone numbers, details on their daily routine. Court papers say Gupta pushed the hit man to carry out this murder as soon as possible. But at the same time, he was making clear that it shouldn't happen during high-level talks between U.S. and Indian officials. Then, in late June, this whole plot was foiled when authorities in the Czech Republic arrested Gupta at the request of the United States.

KELLY: OK, so as we wrap our heads around all that, Jackie Northam, hop in here. Is this big news in India? Are we hearing any response from authorities there?

NORTHAM: Yeah, it is. It's big news in India, of course. I mean, India's foreign ministry announced just this morning - as it turns out, just ahead of the news out of the Justice Department - that it had set up a high-level inquiry earlier this month into the incident and that it would take follow-up action if necessary. Now, we haven't heard from New Delhi since on this particular DOJ revelation. You know, the Biden administration put out a statement as well about the incident. And, interestingly, it said it would be providing information to India's government to help aid its internal investigation and that it expects some accountability. And, you know, that's seen as - by some as a rather restrained response to the allegations, you know, of an attempted extraditial (ph) killing - extrajudicial killing on U.S. soil, especially by a country that the U.S. considers a partner - a Democratic partner. And, you know, some analysts point out the contrast between similar events - if, you know, perhaps Russia was involved.

KELLY: Would be a very different reaction, one would expect. So what explains this restrained response by the U.S.? Because, again, just to underscore, if what the Justice Department says happened actually happened, this was an assassination attempt on an American inside the U.S.

NORTHAM: Yeah, exactly. Well, you know, the restrained response probably or largely is because the Biden administration, you know, has been - over the past few years, have been trying to strengthen its security and diplomatic ties with India as a way to counter China's dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. And, you know, this incident could seriously complicate that strategy. The administration knew about this attempted assassination going back to July, and several high-level administration officials traveled to India since then to meet with their counterparts about it, including CIA Director William Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. You know, even Biden talked to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about it, you know, on the sidelines of the G20. You know, and finally, today, the Justice Department stepped in. So analysts say this pragmatism - you know, it reflects the administration's desire to strike a balance between its strategic interests - China - with its values - you know, its opposition to extrajudicial killings.

KELLY: OK, so there have been all these talks, all these meetings at the highest level of the Biden administration with India. Now it's out in the open. We know about it. What happens now? Ryan, you first.

LUCAS: Well, on the Justice Department front - as I said a bit earlier, Gupta was arrested in June in the Czech Republic. He's still there and will be as his extradition proceedings play out.

KELLY: And Jackie?

NORTHAM: Well, as far as diplomacy goes, you know, this strategy of using India as a counterweight to China is important to the Biden administration. But, you know, this incident has clearly tarnished the relationship, and it's hard to see if it will have a long-term damaging effect on that relationship. We'll have to see what the Indian investigation into the incident discovers and whether anyone is held to account. And in a statement today, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the government of India was clear with the administration that they were taking the investigation seriously.

KELLY: OK. Detailed reporting there from NPR's Jackie Northam and Ryan Lucas. Thanks to you both.

LUCAS: Thank you.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.