Zahoor Watali

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When Nawaz Sharief attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, it instantly raised hope across the border. Three-and-half years later, the man who claimed to have played a key role in getting then Pakistan Prime Minister to attend the function is a Kashmiri businessman Zahoor Ahmad Shah (Watali).

Said to be man of influence and connections, Watali, 65, revealed this to sleuths of National Investigating Agency (NIA) when he was arrested on allegations of funding militant and separatist organisations.

Eighth in a row to fall in the net of NIA, Watali has reportedly talked about his political contacts in both India and Pakistan and have even dropped names of politicians, bureaucrats, and intelligence officials.

Father of three sons, all doctors, Watali’s elder brother was veteran police officer, A M Watali, who retired as DIG police in early nineties.

Hailing from Handwara in Kashmir, Watali is believed to have ventured into business at a very young age. Donning many hats, he, reported by Indian Express, started his business with a handsaw machine. Later he set up an oil mill, joinery mill and finally had his day in real estate. He started to develop colonies under M/s Trison Farms and Constructions Pvt. Ltd name, which has a capital of Rs 40,00000.

Having business interests in many countries, he has also worked as a broker in Dubai while operating cargo flights between Dubai and Russia. He has helped Pakistan to get sugar from Middle East.

He was first arrested in 1990, from his house in Baghat along with Bilal Lone, Sajad Lone and Yasin Malik. He spent eight months in Jammu jail.

Watali is believed to have close relations with slain Abdul Gani Lone, whom he accompanied on many foreign trips. However, a few newspapers reported that he was Lone’s driver as well.

On Lone’s behalf, it is said that he carried a letter of ‘mediation’ addressed to then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Watali has claimed that the offer was an effort by the Hurriyat to “legitimise itself”.

He has claimed to have met Sardar Muhammad Abdul Qayyum Khan, former president of Pakistan administered Kashmir to initiate a dialogue between the then prime minister A B Vajpayee and Pakistan military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Qayyum facilitated a telephone conversation between the two leaders soon after the Agra Summit.

Investigators allege that Watali’s business interests in Kashmir, Middle East and Pakistan helped him act as a conduit for illegally remitting funds to secessionists and militants.

He has told investigators that he was part of an effort by the Hurriyat to act as mediator between India and Pakistan during the Kargil war. The offer, made during the peak of the conflict in 1999, was rejected by Pakistan, he claimed.

FIR stands registered in police station Parimpora when his name surfaced in a case of illegal encroachment of land and assault in year 2016. Later, investigations on the case were stayed on orders from Jammu and Kashmir High Court.

He is accused of using invalid passport and case stands registered by the police. After his initial questioning, NIA said Watali used to charge a commission of 7 to 9 per cent for transfer of money that he received from Pakistan or the Middle East.

— Saima Bhat

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