Leader of Kashmiri NGO sentenced in America for Pakistani ties

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The US government has sentenced a Kashmir-born American citizen for having ties with the Pakistani intelligence community, but the persecution of Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai has some saying the maneuver was politically motivated.

Fai, 62, was sentenced last month after pleading in December to counts of conspiracy and tax evasion. For decades Fai served as a lobbyist in Washington working to better the United States’ relations with his native country through his own Kashmiri American Council (KAC). During that time, Fai now acknowledges that he relied on funding by way of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to stay afloat. Fai admits that he hid information about the more than $3.5 million that was sent to his group from the ISI but says he saw no reason to disclose his ties. The US government, on the other hand, begs to differ.

On his own part, Fai says he took in the donations to help push for American aid to be sent to Pakistan and would be accepting of any agency that offered to help. “Since the cause was sacred and I needed financial resources, I was willing to take funds as long as there were no strings attached to them,” Fai explained to the court. “The financial dire straits compelled me to accept funds from any source that was willing to contribute. I was frightened of the disclosure that foreign monies were funding our initiatives. If it were to become public knowledge, it would devastate my credibility.”

Attorneys for Fai say that the support he received from the ISI should be viewed as innocent donations that did not influence policy. In fact, they allege, never once did the Kashmiri American Council agree to take any stance suggested by the ISI in return for the compensation. “Because he needed financial resources, Dr. Fai was willing to accept funding from any donor that was willing to contribute as long as there were no strings attached to the receipt of the funds,” his lawyer lectured in court.

Today Fai has good reason to fear that his credibility has indeed been devastated after being sentenced to two years in prison last month. For never actually siding with ISI, however, some say that it was the deteriorating relationship between the US and Pakistan that served as a catalyst for bringing charges against Fai.

Despite acknowledging he received aid from the ISI for years, American authorities did not arrest and charge Fai until July 2011, two months after the United States stormed into Abbottabad, Pakistan and raided the home of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — without, of course, ever clueing in officials there. The raid and subsequent execution came at a time where US/Pakistan relations were already falling apart, but in the weeks and months after the May 2011 raid, distrust and discontent waged by Pakistanis against the US increased. It was only then that the US stepped up to arrest Fai for taking money from the ISI.

Fai “spent 20 years operating the Kashmiri American Council as a front for Pakistani intelligence” U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride charged, adding that the man “lied to the Justice Department, the IRS and many political leaders throughout the United States as he pushed the ISI’s propaganda on Kashmir.”

“Fai claims that he concealed his connections to the ISI because revealing them would have undermined ‘his credibility with his constituents and particularly with the government of India and the indigenous Kashmiri resistance’,” prosecutors charged during Fai’s recent sentencing. “To the contrary, revealing his ISI connection would not have undermined his credibility with the Government of India because he had no credibility with the Government of India; the Indian Government understood that Fai was an agent of Pakistan. Further, revealing his ISI connection would not have undermined his credibility with the ‘indigenous Kashmiri resistance,’ because just like the KAC the ‘indigenous Kashmiri resistance’ to which Fai refers (in particular, Syed Salahuddin and the Hizbul Mujahideen organization) were financially and logistically supported by ISI from the start anyway.”

Federal prosecutors continue to stand by the charge that Fai was propagating information for the ISI while at the mercy of them financially. When the tables are turned, however, America’s stance on non-governmental organizations is just the opposite. More than a dozen US citizens were charged with financing an opposition movement in Egypt last year, most of who were employed through NGO’s operating from offices based in the States. Is there a double standard in the US when it comes to handling NGOs? Given the time of Fai’s arrest — and his ties with America’s fair-weather friend, Pakistan — it seems as if America can pick and chose who its own citizens can be compensated by.

At his sentencing, Fai pleaded, “I fight a worthy fight — freedom for Kashmir. I sacrifice for a worthy cause — independence for Kashmir.”

His attorney agrees that Fai worked towards furthering a cause that was critical for his home country and perhaps couldn’t have been possible without ISI aid. “He has managed somehow to bring people together to talk about peace,” his layer, Nina Ginsberg, told the court.

Even Robert Grenier, the former Central Intelligence Agency official that headed the CIA’s counterterrorism center, has spoken out again America’s persecution of Fai. “It is hard to suppose that the timing of this case has nothing to do with the current feud between the ISI and its American counterpart,” Grenier wrote last year. “No doubt, the discovery of undeclared foreign intelligence activities in the US makes for a useful talking point in the context of Pakistani demands for greater visibility into US intelligence activities in their country. But none of us should be fooled into thinking that this latest tempest in a teapot is anything other than what it is: a distraction.”

In Fai’s defense, Grenier described the man’s role in Washington as not unlike what many other do in the US capital. “In short, he has been doing what virtually all advocacy groups do in Washington. His sole violation, in this respect at least, has been to fail to file the necessary paperwork to declare himself an agent of a foreign government, and thus formally join his 2,500 counterparts,” he writes, adding, “as is often the case in Washington, it was not the non-existent “crime” which was important, but the effort to cover it up.”

“Yes, even casinos have rules, and the rules in this case appear to have been systematically broken. But at a time when Washington politics is awash in special-interest cash, when the President himself managed to collect some $86m for both his upcoming campaign and for his party in just the past three months alone, when wealthy campaign “bundlers” are rewardedwith political favours for organising groups of their well-heeled friends to make political contributions en masse, it is a bit hard to get worked up over these almost pathetically marginal effortsto raise awareness of the plight of Kashmiris. Presumably, advocates for the redoubtable US India Political Action Committee have no need to engage in such subterfuges,” insists Grenier.

For failing to disclose the compensation he received from the ISI — and attempting to bring change to his native Kashmir — Fai was sentenced to two years in prison. Following the sentencing, shops, schools, businesses and public transport was suspended in Indian Kashmir after leaders there called for a strike in opposition to America's persecution of Fai.