ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — An influential U.S.-based Kashmiri activist was sentenced to two years in prison Friday for concealing his links to Pakistan's spy agency while he presented himself as an independent voice to members of Congress and successive presidential administrations.
Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, 62, of Fairfax, was the longtime executive director of the Washington-based Kashmiri American Council. Last year he pleaded guilty to using a network of straw donors to hide the fact that Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, had provided him with $3.5 million in funding over a two-decade career of Kashmiri advocacy.
Fai admitted that he knew a disclosure of his financial links to the ISI would harm his credibility as a supposed independent advocate for Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan.
Fai's advocacy would have been legal if he had registered as a foreign agent. But he did not do so and explicitly lied about his links on multiple occasions.
Fai apologized for his actions in court. After the hearing outside the courthouse, he struck a slightly more defiant tone.
"I fight a worthy fight — freedom for Kashmir. I sacrifice for a worthy cause — independence for Kashmir," Fai said.
He was initially charged with conspiring to violate violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). But the plea bargain he struck charged him only with tax violations related to his scheme of using straw donors, as well as making false statements.
Prosecutors sought a four-year prison term, higher than the guidelines of 27-33 months. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg argued that Fai essentially ran a "false flag" operation for the ISI and that he operated the Kashmiri American Council as a front for Pakistan for 20 years.
"Everything he did for the KAC for the last 20 years is a fraud," Kromberg said.
Fai's attorney, Nina Ginsberg, argued for probation.
Fai himself said he frequently took positions at odds with those espoused by Pakistan. Most fundamentally, he said, he advocated for Kashmiri independence while Pakistan wants the territory annexed into its own country.
But Kromberg said it's ludicrous to believe that Fai took $3.5 million from the ISI with no strings attached. And he said the evidence seized in the case shows that Fai was under the direct control of the ISI, submitting budgets to them and facing reprimands when he took actions that displeased them.
In court papers, Kromberg also said Fai was "less than forthright" after his guilty plea in briefing authorities about his connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ginsberg took exception to the government's efforts to paint Fai as an extremist. She said they had been monitoring his email and phone calls surreptitiously for 20 years, and could produce no evidence to back up those assertions. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, she said Fai answered the government's questions truthfully — he knows many members of the group, which is prominent in many Muslim countries, but is not a part of the organization.
Ginsberg also noted that Fai drew letters of support not only from the Pakistani and Kashmiri communities, but also from some in India, including the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi.
Fai was well known on Capitol Hill and internationally for his advocacy on behalf of Kashmir, and was especially known for an annual peace conference he sponsored to address the Kashmiri dispute, which has been a major flashpoint in the antagonistic relationship between India and Pakistan for decades.
"He has managed somehow to bring people together to talk about peace," Ginsberg told the judge.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride, whose office prosecuted the case, said Fai "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 said he plans to continue his advocacy work from prison. He is expected to begin serving his term in late June.