A separatist leader in Indian-controlled Kashmir said Wednesday the Kashmiri-born man arrested in the U.S. on suspicion of being a Pakistani agent is a victim of a diplomatic conspiracy.
The charge against Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai of the Kashmiri American Council alleges he is an unregistered agent of a foreign government. The U.S. Justice Department says he donated millions to a Washington nonprofit in a secret lobbying effort led by Pakistani intelligence to influence U.S. policy on disputed Kashmir.
The arrest is likely to complicate the already strained ties between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan, which have fought two wars since their 1947 independence over rival claims to the Himalayan territory. The U.N.-drawn line of control dividing Kashmir is the world's most heavily armed border.
Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani on Wednesday insisted Fai was innocent and called the allegation the "result of India's diplomatic efforts and conspiratorial plans."
Both Fai and Geelani have openly opposed India's heavy-handed rule and argued that Kashmiris should vote themselves to decide the territory's final status. India has refused any such referendum, accusing Pakistan of fomenting conflict by arming and training rebels. Pakistan denies this and says it provides only moral and diplomatic support.
Over decades, stone-throwing Kashmiri youths have held regular street protests, and violent uprisings and crackdowns have left 68,000 people dead, most of them civilians, since 1989.
"Mr. Fai has been active for last 32 years highlighting the plight of his people," Geelani said. "Because of his unflinching advocacy of the Kashmir cause at the international level, he had become an eyesore for India."
Another separatist group, the pro-independence Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front, also condemned the U.S. charge as going against the democratic path of nonviolence Fai advocated. "His arrest is against ideals of democracy and peaceful reconciliation. This is also against the U.S. government's approach and thinking."
India's police chief in Kashmir said Fai's arrest followed years of suspicions.
"He has been figuring in lots of things in the past, like ... the diversion of ISI funds for anti-national activities in India and particularly in Jammu and Kashmir," Kuldeep Khoda said.
The U.S. Justice Department says in court documents that Fai _ directed by a top member of Pakistan's spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI _ donated millions of dollars to U.S. political campaigns, wrote newspaper op-eds, organized congressional trips and met with White House and State Department officials. It alleges Pakistan financed similar operations in London and Brussels.
U.S. tax documents show Fai's Kashmiri American Council had a much smaller budget and told the U.S. government it received no foreign grants.
Though the charges are not related to espionage, the arrest adds strain to the difficult U.S.-Pakistan relationship, tested recently when the U.S. found and killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan without telling the government there.
Geelani urged Kashmiris to protest Friday and "foil the Indian designs to weaken the Kashmiri struggle."
He said that, unless Fai was freed, Kashmiris "will lose their faith in the international community."
Several of Fai's colleagues in the U.S. also said they were stunned by Fai's arrest, calling the soft-spoken 62-year-old a "gentleman" who dedicated his whole life to the Kashmiri cause. Associate Nadim Malik, head of advocacy group Kashmir Mission USA, on Tuesday insisted "Dr. Fai and the Kashmiri freedom movement have nothing to do with the ISI."
The arrest also sparked debate on social networking site Facebook, with some questioning the timing of Fai's arrest while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was visiting India this week.
One Kashmiri man Shuja Malik said the "U.S. has killed two birds with one stone" in hitting out at both Pakistan's shadowy intelligence service and Kashmiri separatists.
ISI has a complicated relationship with U.S. intelligence. The agency is a crucial ally against terrorists but also works against the U.S. at times, including running double agents against the CIA.