Canadian police arrest three in Sikh activist Hardeep Singh’s killing

Arrests in last year’s killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar are set to fuel more diplomatic tensions between India and Canada.

A mural features the image of late Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey
A mural features the image of late Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was killed on the grounds of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in British Columbia in June 2023 [File: Chris Helgren/Reuters]

Police in Canada have made arrests in the fatal 2023 shooting of prominent Sikh-Canadian activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, months after authorities accused Indian government agents of being involved in the killing.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Canada’s westernmost province of British Columbia said on Friday afternoon that three people were arrested as part of an ongoing investigation into Nijjar’s killing.

The three individuals — all Indian nationals — were arrested in Edmonton, Alberta, and charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, RCMP Superintendent Mandeep Mooker told reporters.

“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,” Mooker said.

He added that police are “investigating if there are any ties to the government of India”.

“However, as I said, it’s an ongoing investigation and I don’t have any information to provide on that matter at this time.”

Nijjar was fatally shot on June 18, 2023, outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, spurring widespread condemnation.

A few months later, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country’s security agencies were investigating “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents 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,” Trudeau said in an address to Canada’s parliament in September of last year.

“In the strongest possible terms, I continue to urge the government of India to cooperate with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter.”

His comments spurred a fierce response from India, which rejected the allegations as “absurd” and politically motivated. New Delhi also accused Canada of not doing enough to stem anti-India activism and “Sikh extremism”.

But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has long faced allegations of targeting political opponents, journalists and religious minorities, including Muslims and Sikhs, in what rights groups have said is a continuing effort to stifle dissent.

At the time of Nijjar’s killing, tensions had been growing between Canada and India over a Sikh campaign for a sovereign state in India’s Punjab region. Known as the Khalistan movement, the campaign has supporters in Canada.

Nijjar served as president of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, the temple where he was killed. He was among those advocating for Khalistan.

‘Active police operation’

Asked to comment on Friday’s reports that arrests were made in the case, Canada’s Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc referred reporters’ questions to the RCMP.

“You’ll understand that the developments with respect to the murder of a Canadian citizen, Mr Nijjar, are part of an ongoing police operation. This operation started today. It is still an active police operation,” LeBlanc said in Ottawa.

The RCMP identified the three men arrested on Friday as Kamalpreet Singh, Karanpreet Singh and Karan Brar.

Mooker, the police superintendent, said all three were non-permanent residents of Canada and had been in the country for between three to five years.

CBC News reported earlier in the day that, according to unnamed sources, “members of the hit squad are alleged to have played different roles as shooters, drivers and spotters” on the day Nijjar was killed.

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

The High Commission of India in Ottawa did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on Friday afternoon.

Reported threats

Nijjar’s killing continues to raise questions around allegations of Indian foreign interference, particularly within Sikh diaspora communities in Canada, the United States and other countries.

In September, Moninder Singh at the BC Gurdwaras Council told Al Jazeera that he was among five Sikh leaders — including Nijjar — who were warned by the RCMP’s national security division in 2022 about threats against their lives.

On Friday, Danish Singh, president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada advocacy group, welcomed the arrests in Nijjar’s case but said they also raise new questions.

“While the arrest of the hit squad is important, what’s even more important is identifying and bringing to justice those who directed these operations,” Singh said in a statement, accusing the Indian government of being involved.

Reports of an alleged plot to kill another prominent Sikh separatist leader in the US have also emerged following Nijjar’s death. In late November, the US Department of Justice announced charges against a 52-year-old Indian national, Nikhil Gupta.

Gupta was accused of being part of a foiled attempt to assassinate US citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, in coordination with an Indian government employee and others.

Canada India killing
A sign asking for an investigation into India’s role in the killing of Nijjar is seen at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple, in Surrey, September 20 [Chris Helgren/Reuters]

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that US intelligence agencies determined that the operation to target Pannun was approved by the then-head of India’s foreign intelligence agency, known as RAW.

The Indian government rejected those allegations as “unwarranted” and “unsubstantiated”, according to media reports.

On Monday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre described the Washington Post report as “a serious matter”.

“The government of India has been very clear with us that they are taking this seriously and will investigate — and we expect that accountability from the government,” Jean-Pierre told reporters during a news briefing.

She added that Washington would continue to raise concerns with New Delhi.

Source: Al Jazeera