WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. citizens have been charged with illegally lobbying the United States for the Pakistani government and its spy agency over the disputed territory of Kashmir, U.S. authorities said on Tuesday.
FBI agents arrested Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, 62, in Virginia on charges that he failed to register as an agent of a foreign government. Zaheer Ahmad, 63, was also charged but is believed to be in Pakistan. Both are naturalized U.S. citizens.
Pakistan has spent at least $4 million since the mid-1990s lobbying the U.S. Congress and the White House through Fai and the Kashmiri American Council, also known as the Kashmir Center, where Fai served as executive director, according to an FBI affidavit filed in U.S. court.
The arrest and allegations may further strain already frayed ties between Washington and Islamabad, particularly after U.S. forces conducted a secret raid in Pakistan in May that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Control over Kashmir has been at the center of hostilities between nuclear armed Pakistan and India since their partition in 1947 and was the scene of 1999 war between the two nations.
An FBI affidavit detailed the alleged scheme in which Fai’s organization received up to $700,000 annually from Pakistan to make campaign contributions to U.S. politicians, sponsor conferences and other promotions.
“Mr. Fai is accused of a decades-long scheme with one purpose -- to hide Pakistan’s involvement behind his efforts to influence the U.S. government’s position on Kashmir,” said Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for Eastern Virginia.
One unidentified confidential witness told investigators that Pakistan’s powerful military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, was behind some of the money Fai received, according to the FBI affidavit.
A second confidential witness said the spy agency had sponsored and controlled Fai’s organization and had been directing him for the past 25 years, the court papers said.
A U.S. official said the investigation was ongoing and more charges could be forthcoming, but there was no indication Fai had been engaged in spying.
Foreign nationals and governments are banned from making contributions to U.S. campaigns and anyone who lobbies on behalf of a foreign government must register with the U.S. Justice Department.
Fai, his nonprofit group and Ahmad never registered that they were working for the Pakistani government, U.S. authorities said.
“Mr. Fai is not a Pakistani citizen and the government and embassy of Pakistan have no knowledge of the case involving him,” said a Pakistan Embassy spokesman.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said in a message posted on Twitter that an embassy official was in contact with Fai about an event he organized with U.S. officials and scholars but that the FBI “does not allege embassy involvement or knowledge” of his alleged activities.
Fai appeared briefly in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia where a judge ordered him detained pending a preliminary and detention hearing set for Thursday. It was not not clear if Fai had a lawyer yet.
Pakistan allegedly funneled money to Fai through Ahmad and contributions by others that were reimbursed by the Pakistani government. Fai then used the funds for campaign donations, conferences and other lobbying efforts, the affidavit said.
The FBI affidavit said Fai had denied that he had lobbied, saying instead he was involved in public relations.
Federal election records showed Fai had given $23,500 to U.S. political candidates since 1997, including $250 to President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as well as $7,500 to Republican Representative Dan Burton of Indiana.
Burton, an outspoken critic of India’s actions in Kashmir, said in a statement he was “deeply shocked” by Fai’s arrest and “had no inkling of his involvement with any foreign intelligence operation.”
“If there is any doubt about the origin of these contributions, I will donate those funds to the Boy Scouts of America,” he said. Burton said he has known Fai for 20 years.
The Justice Department said that there was no evidence that any elected officials who received the contributions from Fai or his group knew that it came from the Pakistani government.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Christopher Wilson