NIA arrests top Kashmir businessman for funding terrorists

Srinagar/New Delhi: The NIA on Thursday arrested Zahoor Wattali, a prominent businessman close to separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, on charges of acting as a conduit for passing money received from Pakistan to militants, separatists and stone-pelters in the Kashmir Valley. Wattali, an influential businessman known to be friends with Pakistani leaders and separatists as well as mainstream politicians in Kashmir, was arrested from his house in a posh Srinagar neighbourhood in a case "pertaining to funding of terrorist and separatist activities in Jammu and Kashmir", an NIA official said. The arrest follows searches conducted by the NIA on Wednesday at multiple locations in Srinagar, Handwara, Kupwara and Baramulla belonging to the relatives and employees of Wattali who has been closely associated with the cross-border trade with Pakistan in Kashmir and was a past President of LoC Traders Association. The NIA official said the searches unearthed "highly incriminating material pertaining to receipt of funds by Wattali from foreign sources and its further distribution to the terrorists and separatists in the Kashmir Valley for anti-India activities". Wattali is "suspected of acting as a conduit for illegally remitting funds to the secessionists, terrorists and stone-pelters", the official said. He was questioned on Thursday by NIA officials regarding the "incriminating financial transaction details and property-related records seized during the searches". He is expected be brought to Delhi and presented before a NIA judge at Patiala House Courts on Friday. Wattali is considered one of the most influential businessmen in Jammu and Kashmir with deep political connections in India as well as Pakistan.  Sultan Mehmood Chaudhary, a former Prime Minister of the Pakistan-administered Kashmir, had attended the 2009 marriage of his son at his residence in Srinagar -- which also drew the virtual Who's Who of the Kashmir Valley. His business empire is reportedly spread in Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh and Dubai. Wattali has been under the NIA scanner for nearly two months and was called for repeated questioning at the agency's Delhi headquarters. On June 3, the NIA searched his Srinagar house and claimed to have seized incriminating documents pertaining to several financial transactions and land deals. "The property documents seized have shown huge amount of cash transactions in sale and purchase," the NIA said in a statement. The NIA has been looking for evidences of separatist leaders and businessmen receiving funds from Hafiz Saeed, who heads the Lashkar-e-Taiba front Jamaat-ud-Dawa charity and other Pakistan-based militant outfits. The agency has questioned hardline Geelani's sons Nayeem and Naseem, who are expected to be called again to Delhi for further quizzing. It has also questioned Faheem Ali, a Deputy Superintendent of Police who was personal security officer of moderate Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and Devender Singh Behl, a lawyer associated with Geelani. Geelani's son-in-law Altaf Shah is among eight separatists already arrested on charges of terror funding. Others behind the bars are Nayeem Khan, Ayaz Akbar Khanday, Mehrajuddin Kalwal, Peer Saifullah (all from Geelani's faction of Hurriyat), Shahid-ul-Islam (of the Hurriyat faction led by the Mirwaiz) and Farooq Ahmed Dar alias Bitta Karatay of a faction of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. Prominent separatist Shabir Shah, arrested by the Enforcement Directorate in a separate but similar case, is also likely to be questioned by NIA.  Wattali, said to be one of the biggest catches among traders accused of hawala money transactions, was accused of travelling on an invalid passport last year.  "Instead of surrendering the cancelled passport to the authorities, he travelled abroad on March 21, 2016 in violation of the law. When he tried to do so again, his passport was seized at Delhi," the NIA statement said. A case was registered against him but the proceedings were put in abeyance as per Jammu and Kashmir High Court orders. In 2009, Wattali was accused of illegal encroachment of land and assault. A case was registered but investigation was stopped after the High Court stayed it. IANS