NIA On ‘Blood Money’ Trail

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 27 Oct 2017 11:54:19

Besides probing the trails of ‘blood money’ from Pakistan and cutting the supply lines, the NIA has also swooped down on the gangs of stone pelters who had brought Kashmir to a grinding halt after Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani’s death last year

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has put the powerful and the mighty in J&K on the mat for indulging in corrupt practices to promote insurgency in the State. They are being funded by the ISI, and the agency swooped down upon Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali, raided 17 of his and his relatives’ properties in Jammu, Srinagar, Delhi and Gurugram, he was well recognised as a mover and shaker in the shady world of separatists and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan.

Even in Delhi, surprisingly, bureaucrats, especially in the intelligence circles, would hear him out. Looking back, Watali’s claim that the BJP Government had sought his help to make Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agree to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in at Delhi in May 2014 does not seem like mere bluff. “He did help bridge the communication gap at that time. There were a lot of misgivings in Pakistan about Modi, and therefore, informal confirmation from Sharif was a must before we could send them a formal invite,” says a source well versed with the matter.

In Kashmir, separatists looked at him with awe, particularly after former ‘Prime Minister’ of PoK Sultan Mehmood Chaudhary came to Kashmir to attend the wedding
of Watali’s son Yasir in September 2011. The Omar Abdullah Government took this as an opportunity to generate goodwill among the Pakistanis, rolled out a red carpet for him and provided him with a chopper to have a bird’s eye view of the Valley. Chaudhary was overwhelmed and publicly thanked Watali for fulfilling his wish. Ironically, he was being hosted in the same Kashmir that his Government was trying to wrest by sending terrorists and jihadis.

This single incident had raised Zahoor Watali’s graph by many notches; from being an obscure money operator in the jihad-terrorism game, he was now seen as someone with reach and influence in the corridors of power in Islamabad and Delhi.

Six years on, Watali is cooling his heels in a Delhi guesthouse that doubles as a lockup of the NIA. He is unable to explain to his interrogators, who are confronting him with facts about his money transactions and property documents, how he managed to acquire properties - flats, swathes of land in Jammu and Kashmir, houses in multiple locations in Kashmir, Dubai, Gurugram and London - from his known businesses. Many of these properties are benami.
The front-rung leader of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) admitted that he had received a monthly allowance from Pakistan for five years. “I was getting about Rs. 8-10 lakh per month. The money would come from the ISI and was delivered to me in cash by Zahoor,” he said. Watali, he alleged, deducted his 20 per cent commission and handed over the rest to him with utmost punctuality.

For the NIA, Hurriyat leaders are usual suspects but sources familiar with investigations on terror funds say that ISI’s money had reached at least two present-day legislators - one of whom, Engineer Rashid, an independent MLA from Lolab, has already been questioned by the NIA. Rashid, one of the most vociferous men in the assembly, could face more questioning, sources say.

Some of the MLAs were allegedly paid for raising questions in the assembly to embarrass the Government. Though the NIA is tight-lipped about the interrogation of Hurriyat biggies like Shabir Ahmad Shah, Nayeem Khan and Altaf Ahmed Shah Fantoosh, sources say that it is proving to be a challenging task to establish money trails from Pakistan to Kashmir. The agency was mapping the disproportionate growth in the assets of these leaders during the years of militancy.

At least two senior Hurriyat leaders are believed to have been identified as recipients of huge cash from Pakistan and their assets are being looked into.
One of the Hurriyat leaders who continues to live in the traditional mud house built by his State transport corporation driver father in Srinagar downtown is alleged to
have enormous benami properties in Srinagar. It’s said that he owns half of the Lal Chowk (the fashionable business centre of Srinagar) - all in the names of his confidantes, uncles, nephews and siblings. The same leader has apparently built a palatial house in Islamabad, the costliest city in Pakistan, where his Pakistani wife and daughter live.

Shabir Ahmed Shah, who was once called the Nelson Mandela of Kashmir, is being probed both by the NIA and the Enforcement Directorate of the Ministry of Finance. His
property and investments in businesses allegedly fetch him about Rs. 4 lakh on a daily basis.

Though another key Hurrityat leader, Mirwaiz Moulvi Umer Farooq, has been quite well off, since his family is the main shareholder in Kashmir’s Jamia Masjid, his close aide Shahid-ul-Islam is being interrogated for details about the money his leader had been receiving. A former policeman, who was posted to guard the Mirwaiz, was found involved in transporting cash for him and is being questioned.

However, it’s not clear as to why the authorities didn’t act against alleged operators like Watali all these years. According to an IPS officer formerly posted in J&K, “Watali’s proximity to the Lone family was a reason that had restrained us from taking action against him.” Watali was once arrested along with the Lone brothers and JKLF Chief Yasin Malik from his house in Srinagar. Watali spent eight months in prison but was never charged for a crime. The next time, he was booked when he tried to forcibly occupy a piece of land on Srinagar outskirts and had assaulted the lawful owner. He had a close shave with the law a third time when he knowingly used a cancelled passport to travel last year.

Besides probing the trails of ‘blood money’ from Pakistan and cutting the supply lines, the NIA has also swooped down on the gangs of stone pelters who had brought Kashmir to a grinding halt after Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani’s death last year. An independent photojournalist arrested from south Kashmir had provided the NIA strong clues about the modus operandi of the stone pelters, their financers and also the social media groups that were being used to organise mobs for sabotage and obstructing the counterinsurgency operations by the Army and security forces.