New Delhi: Nikhil Gupta, the Indian national indicted by federal prosecutors in the United States for plotting to assassinate a Sikh American at the behest of an Indian government official, has appealed a Prague court’s order allowing his extradition to the US, Czech judicial officials told The Wire on Wednesday.
On November 29, US federal prosecutors announced that they had charged Gupta with ‘murder for hire’ and ‘conspiracy’ in the ultimately failed plot to kill a Sikh activist in New York. The filed charges accused an unnamed but “identified Indian government official” of recruiting Gupta to hire a ‘hitman’. The ‘hitman’ that Gupta thought he was hiring was actually an undercover US law enforcement officer.
The target was also unnamed in the court documents but was identified by media reports as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for the Sikhs for Justice, a Khalistan advocacy group that is proscribed in India. Pannun is a US citizen who also holds Canadian nationality.
Gupta was arrested in Prague at the request of the US authorities when he arrived there from India on June 30, 2023.
The Czech ministry of justice spokesperson Vladimir Řepka told The Wire that the municipal court in Prague had issued an order on November 23 on the admissibility of the extradition order to the United States. “However, the decision of the municipal court is not yet in legal force.”
When asked for the reason for the delay in implementing the order, he said, “Mr Gupta lodged a complaint (i.e. an ordinary remedy) against the decision of the municipal court in Prague on the admissibility of extradition.”
The next step would be a referral to the high court for a decision on the complaint by Gupta. “The high court in Prague shall either dismiss the complaint and thus uphold the decision of the municipal court, revoke the challenged decision and refer the case back to the municipal court in Prague for a new hearing, or change the decision and rule on the inadmissibility of the extradition,” said Repka.
The Wire has not been able to contact Gupta’s defence counsel.
The Manhattan indictment also suggested that Gupta’s alleged co-conspirator – the unnamed Indian government official – was involved in the assassination of a Canadian Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in June. When Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of involvement in Nijjar’s killing in mid-September, it triggered a strong reaction from India, leading to the recall of 41 Canadian diplomats and the suspension of visa services for Canadian nationals – which has since resumed.
According to US prosecutors, Gupta, described as a trafficker of drugs and weapons, had been recruited by the unnamed Indian government official (‘CC-1’) in May this year. After he agreed to hire a hitman, Gupta was reportedly assured that a criminal case against him in Gujarat “had been taken care of”.
On behalf of ‘CC-1’, Gupta, who was based in India, contacted a “criminal associate” who was actually an informer for the US Drug Enforcement Agency. In turn, the ‘associate’ introduced him to a ‘hitman’, who was an undercover officer deployed by the DEA and Federal Bureau of Investigation, as per the filed charges.
The indictment said that Gupta travelled from India to the Czech Republic on June 30. “Upon arrival, Gupta was arrested by Czech law enforcement authorities at the request of the United States, in connection with his participation in the plot to assassinate the Victim,” it said. The 15-page document did not give any more details about Gupta’s stay in the Czech Republic.
Proceedings against Gupta
The Wire has been able to piece together the legal proceedings against Gupta in the Central European nation so far.
As per the Czech justice ministry, Gupta was taken into “provisional custody on the request of the competent authority of the US”.
Thereafter, the formal request for extradition was submitted by US authorities in August 2023. “The extradition of Mr Gupta was requested for the crime of conspiracy to commit murder for hire,” said the spokesperson.
The request was then passed on to the state prosecutor, who then began a preliminary investigation into the matter.
In answer to queries from The Wire, Aleš Cimbala, the spokesperson of the municipal public prosecutor’s office in Prague, confirmed that a “preliminary investigation” had been conducted, as per the Act on International Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters.
“The purpose of the ‘preliminary investigation’ is not to examine and assess the facts to reach a conclusion of guilt or innocence, but only to verify whether there are any legal obstacles in the case that would prevent the extradition of a person to a foreign state,” he said.
Cimbala replied in Czech to a set of written questions submitted by The Wire. For the purposes of this article, The Wire used a machine translation of his response.
Following the ‘preliminary investigation’, Cimbala stated that “in accordance with the law, on October 4, 2023, the public prosecutor of the local prosecutor’s office submitted a motion to declare the extradition admissible to the Municipal Court in Prague”.
The ruling of the municipal court came seven weeks after the prosecutor’s motion was filed. “The court ruled on the application in open court on 23 November 2023,” he said.
Less than a week after the Prague court’s order, US prosecutors filed a new detailed, and unsealed indictment in New York, which declared that Nikhil Gupta had been arrested by Czech authorities. Hours before the indictment was filed, India announced that a high-level inquiry committee had been looking into the US’s information since November 18.
With the extradition process moving to the High Court, Cimbala said that the “next procedural procedure is now taking place”.
“If the court’s decision on the admissibility of extradition comes into force, the presiding judge of the court will refer the matter to the Ministry of Justice, as the Minister of Justice has other subsequent powers in the implementation of international judicial cooperation,” he said.
Similarly, the justice ministry representative also reiterated that once the “decision on the admissibility of the extradition is in legal force,” then the file would be referred to his minister.
He also stated that, in general, the minister is bound by the court’s order. “If the competent court rules on the inadmissibility of the extradition, then the Minister of Justice is bound by the decision of the court and may not authorise the extradition,” said spokesperson Řepka.
Was US granted access?
It is, however, uncertain whether the US had requested or been granted access to Gupta during the processing of the extradition request.
In answer to The Wire’s question about access to Gupta, Řepka said that interrogation of Gupta by any foreign authority would be possible solely on the basis of a formal request for legal assistance.
“In case, there is [a] pre-trial proceeding being conducted in a foreign state, the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office is competent to accept a request of the foreign authority for legal assistance; otherwise the Ministry of Justice is competent,” he noted.
But he added that the Czech justice ministry “has not received any formal requests for legal assistance concerning the interrogation of Mr Gupta”.
When the same question was posed to the Public Prosecutor General’s office, The Wire was told that no comments could be provided as the “whole extradition proceedings” are the “exclusive competence of Ministry of Justice of the Czech Republic”.
The Czech justice ministry’s spokesperson, however, made it clear that “until the decision of [the] minister of justice on granting the extradition, the person whose extradition is sought may not be taken into the jurisdiction of the requesting state”.
‘No record of Gupta’
Meanwhile, the police in Gujarat have denied knowledge of any case being registered against Gupta in the state. Similarly, there appears to be no mention of him in the Government of India’s Registry of Narcotics Traffickers.
News of the Pannun murder conspiracy first emerged when the Financial Times reported last month that US investigators had “thwarted” a plot to kill a Sikh-American citizen and warned India of its concerns about government involvement. At that time, the paper had reported that it was not clear why the plot had been abandoned.
The White House subsequently confirmed the FT story and stated that it had raised the matter with India at the “senior most levels”.
The initial Indian public response to the FT story was to characterise the information shared by the US as “inputs pertaining to nexus between organised criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others”, which are a “cause of concern for both countries”. The government said these inputs were “already being examined” by relevant departments. On November 30, it revealed that a formal committee had been set up on November 18.