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RCMP arrests alleged hitmen accused of killing B.C. Sikh leader

The suspected hitmen accused of killing B.C. Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar have been arrested in Alberta and Ontario, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The RCMP took the Indian nationals into custody on Friday morning, almost a year after Nijjar was gunned down at the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Surrey, B.C.

The suspects entered Canada on student visas but may have been working at the direction of Indian intelligence when they shot Nijjar, the source said.

Those charged are Karanpreet Singh, Kamalpreet Singh and Karan Brar, the source confirmed. According to court records, Brar has been charged with a murder that occurred in Surrey on June 18, 2023.

He also faces a charge of conspiracy to commit murder on May 1, 2023 in Edmonton and Surrey.

The RCMP has scheduled a news conference for Friday to announce “a significant update” in the investigation.

The World Sikh Organization welcomed the arrests, which it said raised “disturbing questions about the nexus between the Government of India and criminal gangs.”

The allegations point to a possible Indian government strategy to assassinate leaders of the Khalistan movement, which supports independence for India’s Sikh-majority Punjab state.

Last September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed the finger at the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, claiming investigators were “pursuing credible allegations of a potential link” to Indian agents.

India denied it was responsible, and Trudeau’s accusations soured relations with Modi and set off a diplomatic feud that saw Ottawa and New Delhi expel each others’ envoys.

Canadian officials, however, have been investigating whether the plot was an escalation of India’s attempts to undermine the Khalistan separatist movement that has taken root within Sikh communities in Canada and elsewhere.

An RCMP investigation is probing whether Nijjar’s murder was part of an Indian intelligence operation based in New Delhi that used Indian citizens who entered the country as international students.

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A plumber and temple president, Nijjar, 45, had long faced Indian allegations he was a leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force terrorist group, but he denied that and faced no charges in Canada.

The murder occurred amid rising transnational repression, in which foreign states use intimidation, coercion and killings to promote their agendas abroad.

“What’s driving it is, I think, impunity,” said Colin P. Clarke, research director at The Soufan Group, a U.S.-based security consulting group, and co-author of a paper on India and the Nijjar killing.

The lack of consequences for targeting diasporas has emboldened governments, who are rarely held to account, he said. “People are doing it because they think they can get away with it.”

The Khalistan Movement

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, walks past Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 Summit in New Delhi, Sept. 10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick. skp

India portrays supporters of Khalistan, many of whom are based in Canada, as a national security threat because they advocate for an independent Sikh homeland that would effectively divide the country.

A popular activist who fled India in 1997, Nijjar was organizing a symbolic referendum on Khalistan independence when two gunmen shot him dead as he left his temple south of Vancouver.

The killing appeared carefully planned. The gunmen allegedly cut off Nijjar’s pickup in the temple parking lot, shot him repeatedly while he was behind the wheel, and fled on foot to a getaway car.

The U.S. later announced it had disrupted a similar plot to kill one of Nijjar’s associates, Gurpatwant Pannun, the New York-based lawyer for the group Sikhs for Justice.

According to the indictment in the case, an Indian intelligence officer hired an alleged drug trafficker, Nikhil Gupta, for the job. But the FBI infiltrated the plot, and Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30.

India’s Foreign Intelligence Wing

Khalistan flags outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Surrey, B.C., where president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down on June 18, 2023. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

At the time of the alleged assassination plots, India’s foreign intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW, was headed by Samant Goel, who served as a police officer in India’s Punjab during the height of Sikh militancy. He was replaced in July 2023, days after Nijjar’s killing.

Created in 1968, RAW was initially focused on regional rivals Pakistan and China, but more recently it has targeted the Khalistan movement in North America and Europe, where it enjoys support in Sikh diasporas.

Under Modi, a Hindu nationalist who came to power in 2014, RAW has ramped up pressure on the pro-Khalistan groups outside India, using methods that community groups allege amount to transnational repression.

Last year, RAW allegedly made the leap from trying to undermine and counter the influence of Khalistan advocates to plotting to kill them, starting with a high-profile target: Nijjar.

Why it allegedly opted to conduct transnational killings remains unknown, since the struggle for Khalistan is no longer a significant security threat to India, at least not to the degree the rhetoric from New Delhi would suggest, said Prof. Christine Fair.

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A foreign relations professor at Georgetown University, Fair said the Indian government’s focus on the issue may have more to do with domestic political calculations, since it allows Modi to portray himself to voters as a strongman protecting the nation.

The decision to kill prominent figures in the Khalistan movement may stem not from the threat they pose but rather India’s sense that it could get away with it, said Fair, said who teaches at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

With Western countries courting India as they realign away from China, New Delhi has a new sense of its self-importance, and may feel it won’t be held to account for its actions, she said.

Between that and domestic politics, Modi has only gained from the issue. “There’s nothing but benefits, and there’s no costs,” she said.

Poster outside Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Surrey, B.C. Global News

While RAW had been linked to targeted killings in South Asia, it now seems to have brought the strategy to North America, said Dan Stanton, a former operations manager at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

“It looks like there’s been some sort of shift,” said Stanton, who worked on the Khalistan issue at CSIS “And they’re clearly operating out of their comfort zone.”

Unlike Canada, the U.S. has downplayed the Indian government’s role in the Pannun assassination plot for geopolitical reasons, prioritizing diplomatic relations amid its pivot away from China.

India has reportedly told the U.S. the plot to kill Pannun was directed by “rogue officials” in RAW, who acted without government authority.

But some dismiss that as a strategy to protect the Indian government, and a legal expert said even if India insists on blaming a rogue official, that does not absolve it of responsibility.

“They’re still acting as a member of that government, as an employee of that government,” said Robert Currie, a professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law and a leading expert on the topic.

“If it was somehow within the range of their governmental employment duties, then the foreign country would be on the hook for that. Even if they did something that was supposedly against instructions that they had.”

An Emboldened India

Mourners carry casket of Sikh temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Surrey, B.C., June 25, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

India’s alleged decision to conduct targeted killings may stem from a changed view of the Khalistan threat under Modi, said Tanya Mehra, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.

The Modi government feels its security concerns are not taken seriously by countries like Canada, and it likely believed it could get away with it, since states are rarely held to account for transnational killings.

New Delhi also sees itself as a growing regional power, sought out by Western countries looking for a partner in Asia amid growing concerns about China,” she said. “I think India is emboldened.”

Canada’s options for responding to the killing on its soil are limited. The Indian nationals accused of murdering Nijjar will likely face criminal trials in the B.C. courts, followed by deportation proceedings.

But if Indian agents operating under diplomatic cover were involved, that poses a legal problem, according to an international law expert: as foreign diplomats, they cannot be charged.

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“They are protected by the law of diplomatic immunity,” Curie said.

Vehicle allegedly used by suspects in June 18, 2023 shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Vehicle allegedly used by suspects in June 18, 2023 shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. RCMP

Since police cannot touch them, it will be up to the Canadian government to take action, which could include expelling them and asking India to prosecute them.

The government could also make a case against the Indian government for conducting a targeted killing in violation of international law and Canadian sovereignty.

“Even if criminal prosecution of the individual is not available, Canada, as the host state, would have a claim against the foreign state for doing this terrible and obviously illegal thing on its soil,” Currie said.

“In that situation, Canada certainly has legal remedies against the foreign government, even if the individual cannot be dragged in front of Canada’s courts, as would otherwise be the case.”

Another option is to take the case to the International Court of Justice, but India would have to agree to do so, and such a case would be costly and time-consuming, he said.

“Best case scenario in that situation is that there are negotiations between the two governments, and the guilty party essentially confesses to what they’ve done and agrees to make it up somehow.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

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