Police make arrests in killing of B.C. Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar

Author: Editors Desk, Evan Dyer Source: CBC News:
May 4, 2024 at 08:19
CBC's Evan Dyer breaks down what investigators revealed on Friday about the arrests of three men in connection with the killing of prominent Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., last June.
CBC's Evan Dyer breaks down what investigators revealed on Friday about the arrests of three men in connection with the killing of prominent Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., last June.

Canadian police have arrested members of an alleged hit squad investigators believe was tasked by the government of India with killing prominent Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., last June, CBC News has learned.

Sources close to the investigation also told CBC News that police are actively investigating possible links to three additional murders in Canada, including the shooting death of an 11-year-old boy in Edmonton.

Members of the hit squad are alleged to have played different roles as shooters, drivers and spotters on the day Nijjar was killed at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, according to the sources.

Sources said investigators identified the alleged hit squad members in Canada some months ago and have been keeping them under tight surveillance.

Kamalpreet Singh, Karanpreet Singh and Karan Brar face first-degree murder and conspiracy charges in the Nijjar case, according to documents filed in a Surrey court Friday. The charges have not been tested in court, but they all appeared before a judge virtually on Friday.


WATCH | Police believe Indian government directed alleged hit squad, say sources: 

Three Indian nationals have been arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the killing of prominent Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., last June. Police believe they are part of an alleged hit squad directed by the Indian government.

Although sources initially told CBC News that raids were expected in at least two provinces, RCMP confirmed Friday that all three men were arrested separately in Edmonton without incident — two of them in their homes and another elsewhere.


'This investigation does not end here,' says RCMP officer

All of the accused are Indian citizens and have been non-permanent residents of Canada for three to five years, RCMP officers told reporters at their Friday press conference announcing the charges.

Sources told CBC News the men arrived in Canada on temporary visas after 2021, some of them student visas. None are believed to have pursued education while in Canada. None have obtained permanent residency.

Others tied to this crime could be arrested in the coming days, police said.

"This investigation does not end here. We are aware that others may have played a role in this homicide and we remain dedicated to finding and arresting each one of these individuals," said Supt. Mandeep Mooker, the officer in charge of the B.C. RCMP's Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT).


IHIT Superintendent Mandeep Mooker speaks during a press conference announcing the arrest of 3 individuals related to the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar at RCMP 'E' division headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Friday May 3, 2024.
RCMP superintendent Mandeep Mooker speaks during a news conference on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)


Assistant Commissioner David Teboul, the RCMP commander for the Pacific region, said he wouldn't comment on the alleged links between these men and Indian officials.

He did say the force is "investigating connections to the government of India."

But Teboul said the force's relationship with Indian police has been "rather challenging and difficult."

Asked if there are any Indian "sleeper agents" in Canada, Teboul said it's a "great question" but he can't say more about it because it's "very much at the centre of evidence and ongoing investigations."

Federal Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc congratulated the RCMP on the arrests and called Friday's developments "significant progress" in trying to get to the bottom of the circumstances around Nijjar's killing.

"The work doesn't end here. In fact, the work continues," LeBlanc told reporters on Parliament Hill. 



WATCH | RCMP calls collaboration with partner agencies in India 'rather challenging':

RCMP Assistant Commissioner David Teboul says police have been collaborating and communicating with partner agencies in India but it has been ‘difficult for the last several years.’

CBC News learned of the arrests — as well as other information that was not announced by police on Friday — through extensive discussions with senior investigative and government sources, as well as members of the Sikh community.

The investigative and government sources spoke with CBC News on the condition that they not be named due to the sensitivity of the matter. The sources in the Sikh community expressed concerns about their personal security, so CBC News is not disclosing their identities.


Shifting responses from India

Nijjar, a 45-year-old Canadian citizen, was shot dead on June 18, shortly after evening prayers at his Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C., in what appeared to be a highly coordinated attack, according to video of the incident obtained by CBC's The Fifth Estate.


WATCH | The Fifth Estate shows how the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar was carried out: 

The Fifth Estate shows how the killing of a Sikh Canadian activist was carried out, allegedly by agents of the government of India.

Last August, Canadian officials told representatives of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government in person that Canada had intelligence linking it to Nijjar's killing.

A month later — on Sept. 18, 2023, not long after returning from a fraught visit to India for the G20 Summit — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to state that "Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India" and Nijjar's killing.

"Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty," he added.

Modi's government has denied it ordered extrajudicial killings in the U.S. and Canada. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar initially decried the Canadian allegation as "absurd" and accused Canada of harbouring violent extremists.


WATCH | Trudeau links Indian government to fatal shooting in Canada: 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says any foreign government involvement in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is 'an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.'

The minister's tone at a Sept. 27, 2023 speaking event was somewhat less confrontational. Jaishankar said at that time that "we told the Canadians that this is not the government of India's policy."

In December, after a U.S. indictment accused an unnamed Indian government employee of playing a role in a murder-for-hire plot in the U.S., Jaishankar issued another statement.

"We have always maintained that if any country, not just Canada, has a concern and gives us some input or some basis for that concern, we are always open to look at it," he said.

Bloomberg reported in March that the Indian government had given the U.S. a report in which it acknowledged that Indian agents were involved in the U.S. murder plot, but claimed they were rogue operatives.

At this stage of Canada's investigation, investigators are reluctant to expand on any possible connections between Nijjar's alleged killers and Indian government officials.

However, during a roundtable with Canadian Punjabi media on Sunday, Trudeau said the work by intelligence and police agencies was ongoing.

"It is very good and rigorous work. And when the time comes for them to conclude that investigation, there will be some very, very clear things that everyone around the world, including in India, will see as to responsibilities and involvement," he said.


Moninder Singh, Bhupinder Singh Hoti and a family member walk into the RCMP 'E' division headquarters in Surrey, B.C on Friday May 3, 2024.
Relatives and friends of Nijjar walk into an RCMP building in Surrey, on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)


Shot dead a day after being listed in India

Just two days after Trudeau's bombshell statement in the House — on Sept. 20, 2023 — Sukhdool Singh Gill, 39, of Winnipeg was found shot to death in a duplex in the city's northwest. A neighbour told police he heard 11 shots.

Gill also went by the alias Sukha Duneke and allegedly was part of the Davinder Bambiha gang in India, according to police documents in that country. Indian media have reported that he fled to Canada in 2017 using a false passport.

Gill was one of Punjab's most wanted men, accused of extortion and arranging money for gang members to buy weapons. Police in India have publicly linked him to murders and other serious crimes.

He was also on the radar of the government of India.

One day before his killing, Gill's name and photo appeared on a list of 43 names of suspected terrorists drawn up by India's National Investigation Agency (NIA), which linked him to the separatist Khalistan Tiger Force. India previously accused Nijjar of being part of the same organization.

The day after Gill died, the NIA tweeted an image of him along with other wanted men.


A man with dark hair, a beard and a handlebar moustache looks into the camera.
Sukhdool Singh Gill appeared on a wanted list released via the social media platform X by India's National Investigation Agency — a specialized counter-terrorism law enforcement agency — on Sept. 21, 2023. Gill, 39, was found dead in a northwest Winnipeg home the same week. (NIA India/X)


Father and son slain together

Six weeks after Gill's death, another alleged Indian gangland figure in another western province was shot dead in a brazen daylight attack that also claimed the life of his 11-year-old son.

Harpreet Uppal, a 41-year-old with links to organized crime, was shot dead in his vehicle in a busy suburban shopping area of Edmonton on Nov. 9, 2023. Two boys were in the vehicle, Uppal's 11-year-old son, Gavin, and a friend.

The Edmonton Police Service later said the killers shot both father and son, while sparing the other boy. EPS Acting Superintendent Colin Derkson said Gavin "was not caught in a crossfire or killed by mistake."

No one has been charged in the Gill or Uppal killings, and the sources told CBC News charges in connection to these cases are not expected to come Friday.


The Bishnoi gang

All of the men arrested Friday are alleged associates of a criminal group in Punjab and neighbouring Haryana state that is associated with notorious Punjabi gangster Lawrence Bishnoi, currently held in India's high-security Sabarmati prison in Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, according to sources close to the investigation.

Bishnoi is accused by the Indian government of the shooting murder of Punjabi singer-politician Sidhu Moose Wala, a former resident of Brampton, Ont., in Punjab in May 2022, as well as drug smuggling and extortion.

Bishnoi was one of two jailed Indian gangsters who claimed responsibility on social media for Gill's killing last September, describing it as revenge for a previous gangland killing in India, according to widespread Indian media reports.

India has long alleged that Punjabi gangsters are able to use Canada as a base to squeeze money from business owners and others in India, relying on an army of low-paid gunmen to act as collectors and enforcers back home.

According to both an unsealed U.S. federal indictment and Canadian investigators, the Indian government itself took advantage of those criminal networks to go after its enemies in Canada and the U.S. — enemies such as Nijjar and Khalistani activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, reportedly the target of an unsuccessful assassination plot in the U.S.


WATCH | U.S. indictment reveals alleged murder-for-hire plot linked to India: 

Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a pro-Khalistan activist and the president of a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C. His day job was working as a plumber. For years, the Indian government called him a terrorist — a claim Nijjar repeatedly denied. So, who was Nijjar, and why did India think he was such a danger?

Pannun was the key organizer behind a series of independence votes in the Sikh diaspora. While the votes had no legal effect, they reportedly infuriated the Modi government.

Nijjar was targeted by India because of his role in helping to organize the votes in Canada's Sikh community, according to Canadian sources and the U.S. indictment.


Governments and gangsters

One source close to the investigation told CBC News Canada is seeing foreign governments, including India, make use of criminal elements to carry out international operations.

"Why risk sending Indian government people when you can get so much mileage using people from organized crime?" the investigator said.

But while the investigation is probing possible connections between Nijjar's killing and the Gill and Uppal cases, investigators are not convinced the Indian government was involved in the latter two.

Investigators say the Edmonton and Winnipeg killings may have had more to do with gangland rivalries and vendettas.


The foiled hit in the U.S.

The U.S. indictment alleges an Indian government employee contracted a criminal to target enemies in North America.

On June 30, 2023, Czech authorities acting on a U.S. warrant arrested alleged Indian drug trafficker Nikhil "Nick" Gupta. On Nov. 30 he was indicted in the U.S. for allegedly helping an unnamed Indian government official hire a hitman to kill an unnamed Sikh independence activist in New York, reported to be Pannun, widely considered India's number one target.

It was the Drug Enforcement Administration, rather than the FBI, that stumbled onto the U.S.-based conspiracy while investigating Gupta in a narcotics case.

Gupta didn't know that the contact he asked to help him find a hitman was in fact a confidential informant of the DEA, the U.S. indictment alleges. Gupta has denied the charges and is facing extradition to the United States. He has not been tried.

The U.S. indictment also referred to Canadian cases. It alleged the unnamed Indian government employee told Gupta the Nijjar killing had accelerated the timetable for the assassination in New York — "It's [a] priority now," he allegedly texted.

Gupta allegedly sent his supposed contract killer a video of Nijjar's body and told him to "do it quickly."


Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and Indian PM Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, walks past Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi's cremation site, during the G20 Summit in New Delhi in September 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


The U.S. indictment says Gupta told the police informant in an audio call that they had "four jobs" to finish before June 29 — one in New York and "three in Canada."

The publication of court documents in his case was one of a number of incidents that concerned Canadian investigators, who watched closely to see what effect the revelations might have on their own surveillance targets in Canada.


A uniquely sensitive time

While the prime minister and U.S. authorities have pointed the finger at the Indian government, Canadian investigators have struggled with the question of how high up the Indian chain of command they should pursue charges.

Investigators long ago dismissed the notion that India's overseas assassination campaign is a rogue operation, as the Indian government has maintained.

They say they believe that Indian officials would not dare to proceed with assassinations in Western countries without official sanction. As CBC News has previously reported, Canadian government sources say Canada has evidence of communications between Indian government officials in India and Canada collected in the course of their investigation.

The arrests come as Indians go to the polls in a national election that takes several weeks of voting to produce a result, expected on June 4. Modi is expected to win a third term in office.

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