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We are shocked: Fai's friends

Last updated on: August 1, 2011 14:52 IST

We are shocked: Fai's friends

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC

Aides of prominent Kashmiri separatist leader Ghulam Nabi Fai express disbelief over his arrest and his links with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. Aziz Haniffa reports.

The closest confidants of Srinagar-born Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai -- arrested last month and charged with participating in a long-term conspiracy to act as an agent of the Pakistan government in the United States without disclosing his affiliation as required by the law -- have expressed emotions of betrayal and denial.

Many of these insiders, including some physicians, -- who I have known for almost 20 years -- refused to speak on the record.

But they claimed they were unaware that Fai was being bankrolled by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence and that they believed that the contributions that flowed to the Kashmiri American Council -- founded and headed by Fai -- were from Kashmiri Americans.

The KAC used this money to lobby for the cause of Kashmiri independence from India, holding a major annual Capitol Hill conference and hosting conferences and seminars at various universities and colleges.

This denial many believe is deliberate or na vet . Retired diplomat Howard Schaffer had earlier said, "For those familiar with Fai's operations, the case has an 'I am shocked, shocked' aspect that calls to mind Captain Reynaud's memorable outcry deploring gambling in the film Casablanca."

"Since the KAC was established in 1990, the year when anti-Indian political upheaval in the disputed state returned the Kashmir issue to world attention, US Kashmir-specialists have assumed that the Council's activities were sponsored and paid for by Islamabad. The allegation that these activities have included small and unpublicised campaign contributions to sympathetic American politicians comes as no particular surprise."

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Image: Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai

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'Fai would only smile and change the subject'

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Having covered the annual Capitol Hill conferences since it was initiated a decade ago, I have seen how defensive some of these insiders would get when questioned about where the money for the KAC to host these conferences and for Fai to jet around the world, publicising the Kashmir issue and pillorying the Indian government for alleged human rights violations in the valley, was coming from.

These confidants would take offence, arguing that Kashmiri Muslims in America had the means to fund such an operation. Fai, on the other hand, would only smile when such questions were raised and change the subject.

However, there was no denying that he was the point man when it came to taking Kashmiri leaders, be they from the valley or Pakistan occupied Kashmir, to meet lawmakers on the Hill or to the State Department or arranging speaking engagements for them at various Washington, DC think tanks.

Fai used his network of organisations such as the Muslim Students Association of North America, the Islamic Society of North America, the Council of American-Islamic Relations to provide a forum for leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and other Kashmiri separatist groups to espouse their cause.

Occasionally, he would also bring up the Kashmir cause at Friday prayers in local mosques or Eid prayers.

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Image: Capitol Hill, Washington DC

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'Pak's spy agency didn't get its money's worth'

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The likes of slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik would always be received by Fai and hosted by him either at his Virginia home, or in nearby hotels.

He would always call me, asking if I would like to interview them. I remember several interviews with Lone with Fai at his side, and also going to Fai's home to interview Farooq and Malik.

During these visits to his elegant home -- easily worth an estimated three-quarters of a million or more in Fairfax, America's richest county -- his wife Chang NingYing Q, a devout and practicing Muslim, would always remain in the background and never enter any of the discussions or even join us for meals.

Fai would take great pride in showing off the garden at the rear of his home, which his wife tended.

While the Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit says that the ISI paid Fai and the KAC nearly $4 million over the past 20 years, I cannot help but concur with Schaffer that Pakistan's spy agency didn't get its money's worth.

Schaffer had argued, "If the Inter-Services directorate or some other organ of the Pakistan government has been footing the Kashmir American Council's bills, as seems so obvious, it is hard to conclude that they have been getting their money's worth. For all its efforts, the Council's lobbying has had minimal success in persuading the Clinton, George W Bush, and Obama administrations to change their basically hands-off diplomacy on the Kashmir dispute."

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Image: Yasin Malik

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'Burton was much more restrained in his criticism'

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Any traction Fai and the KAC got was some concern expressed by Republican lawmakers like Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana and Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania over alleged human rights violations in the valley by Indian security forces and not for any involvement by the US in terms of any mediation of the Kashmir imbroglio.

Even that traction -- largely insignificant because it did not lead to any legislation -- was thanks to Fai finding common cause and piggy-backing with the likes of Dr Gurmit Singh Aulakh, president and founder of the separatist Council of Khalistan, who had cultivated the likes of Burton, and other conservatives, particularly from California, where several pro-Khalistan Sikhs lived and were major contributors to their campaign coffers.

Strange bedfellows, but Aulakh and Fai would often be seen pacing the halls and corridors of the Capitol when these hearings were being held, providing lawmakers with heaps of material, including graphic pictures of men, women and children who had allegedly suffered at the hands of the Indian security apparatus.

However, over the years, with the counter-lobbying by Indian-American groups and the formation of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, Aulakh and Fai and their lobbying proved to be largely ineffective and could not match the lobbying and campaign contributions of the community groups and the critical mass of support for India in  Congress.

Of course, with the demise of the Cold War, many who had slammed India for being a perceived surrogate of the erstwhile Soviet Union also paled into insignificance.

In fact, even Burton, who made a trip to India five years ago and met with the prime minister and other senior officials, was much more restrained in his criticism, much to the chagrin of Aulakh and Fai.

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Image: American Congressmen Dan Burton

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Fai never toed ISI's line: His lawyers

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While Aulakh had registered as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice -- a stretch of credibility because the so-called foreign entity he was representing, Khalistan, was not recognised by anybody -- Fai had not.

One law enforcement officer told this scribe, "If only he had registered with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, as thousands of lobbyists in DC do, he wouldn't be in all of this trouble."

During the preliminary detention hearing in the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, the prosecution, led by US Attorney Gordon Kromberg, said that Fai, during his interrogation after the arrest July 19, had admitted to his links with the ISI.

But Fai's lawyers said though he may have taken money from the ISI, 'he never toed their line.'

This was disputed by FBI Special Agent Sarah Webb Linden, who said Fai did exactly what 'the ISI told him to do.'

In her affidavit, Linden had said, 'The ISI created the KAC to propagandise on behalf of the government of Pakistan with the goal of united Kashmir.'

She had added that a witness had disclosed that 'of the statements Fai makes, 80 percent are provided by the ISI for Fai to repeat and disseminate verbatim.'

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Image: The ISI insignia

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Fai's release has a lot of meaning

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Fai has been released on a $100,000 bond, but is under electronic surveillance. He has been radio-tagged and his passport has been confiscated.

Khurram Wahid, an attorney on Fai's team, said it was his wife who posted his bond. "It is just his word essentially and it is his wife who is signing for him. She is the third party guarantor here," Wahid said.

"He (Fai) is obviously not allowed to have any contact with the foreign government (except through an attorney). He is also not supposed to have contact with anyone who is alleged in the affidavit people who are supposedly with the ISI."

Defense attorney Nina J Ginsberg said, "The release has a lot of meaning. It means that he (Fai) can help more easily in preparing the defense. He is required to live in his home and have electronic monitors, so that he can't go any place that he is not permitted by the court to go. But he will be able to meet with his lawyers and be active in preparing defending his case."

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Image: Ghulam Nabi Fai

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Kashmir have no reason to fear that the world powers: Fai

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Ginsberg said Fai was facing two charges with five year maximum penalties, if he is convicted on both, but added, "It is highly unlikely that his sentence would be anywhere in that range."

The defense is counting on him being cut some slack from the judge for health reasons since he suffered a major stroke nearly two years ago and was incapacitated for a few months. But he recovered and came charging back to his lobbying for Kashmir.

Wahid distributed a written statement from Fai, which said, 'I say with fullest possible consciousness that the people of Kashmir have no reason to fear that the world powers in general, and the United States in particular, will let them down.'

The statement added, 'It has been my lifelong commitment to the people of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, irrespective of their religious background and cultural affiliations to help achieve the right of self-determination to decide their future. God willing, I will continue to do that in days, weeks, months and years to come.'

Image: Kashmiri demonstrators hold a banner during a protest on the eve of International Human Rights Day in Srinagar
Photographs: Fayaz Kabli/Reuters
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