Nikhil Gupta produced in US court, pleads not guilty in ‘murder plot’

New York: Nikhil Gupta, who has been accused of being involved in a ‘murder-for-hire’ plot against a Khalistani separatist, has told a federal court here that he is not guilty.

Appearing before Magistrate Judge James Cott on Monday, he made the “not guilty” plea through his lawyer Jeffrey Chabrowe.

This was his first appearance before a US court after he was extradited on Friday from the Czech Republic.

Outside the courtroom, Chabrowe told reporters that the case is a “complicated matter for India and the US” and there should be “no rush to judgment”.

“We will pursue his defence rigorously,” he said.

He added that information will come out that will call into question the prosecution version.

Assistant Federal Prosecutor Ashley Nichols told the court that Gupta is charged in the murder-for-hire plot.

Cott ordered to keep him in custody till the next court date on June 28, when a conference on the case is scheduled.

Chabrowe did not ask for bail while reserving the right to ask for it later.

According to the indictment — the chargesheet — Gupta, who also uses the name “Nick”, is accused of participating in a plot to assassinate the leader of a “US-based organisation that advocates for the secession of Punjab state” and the establishment of a “Sikh sovereign state called Khalistan”.

The group’s leader, who is not named in the court documents, is Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer with US and Canadian citizenships, who lives in New York and runs a campaign for Khalistan.

Designated as a terrorist by the Indian government, Pannun leads the organisation called Sikhs for Justice which is conducting what it calls a “referendum” on Khalistan among Sikhs.

Gupta, a slightly-built 52-year-old, entered the courtroom dressed in black pants and a sweater and sat beside his lawyer at the defence table.

He and his lawyer talked before the proceedings began, at one point both of them laughed during their conversation.

When the hearing was over, the marshals escorting him made him take off the sweater and give it to his lawyer because he was not allowed to have it.

He was left with the T-shirt he wore underneath.

Before entering the courtroom, his handcuffs had been removed.

Chabrowe told the magistrate the conditions are bad at the Metropolitan Detention Centre where Gupta is being held and that he has not eaten because vegetarian food was not available.

He said that it was a matter of religion for Gupta.

Cott told the lawyer and prosecutors to take it up with the prison officials and report to him if it was not resolved in 24 hours.

Chabrowe also told the magistrate that arrangements should be made to allow Gupta to pray.

During the proceedings when the lawyers and the defendants had to identify themselves, Cott greeted him, as is customary, when it was his turn, “Good afternoon, Mr Gupta”.

The magistrate, seated on a podium with the US Seal and Flag behind him, read him his rights to a fair trial such as his right to remain silent if interrogated and the right to a lawyer.

He also said that since he was a foreign citizen, the US government may have to inform consular officials.

Nichols said that although it was not mandatory in this case, the government would do so.

Cott reminded the prosecution of the rules for a fair trial that requires them to provide the defence with all information that is “favourable to the accused” as soon as it becomes available to enable the defence to make its case.

Should the government fail to follow this, the case can be dismissed and disciplinary action can be taken against the lawyers, he said.

He later put this in a written order.

Jagjit Singh, an associate of Pannun in his law practice, was in the courtroom observing the proceedings.

After the proceedings ended, he recorded videos outside the court about the case.

Outlining the case against Gupta, the chargesheet said that he was recruited to “orchestrate the assassination”.

Gupta, 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 Gupta had himself described his “involvement in narcotics and weapons trafficking”.

Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic last June at the request of the US.

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.


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