A Pakistani court has commuted the death sentence of the main person accused in the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and acquitted three other co-accused in the matter.
All four had been convicted in connection with Pearl’s kidnapping and murder, including British-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was sentenced to death in 2002 for masterminding the murder.
He has been in jail for 18 years awaiting the outcome of an appeal.
Pearl, 38, was investigating Islamist militants in Karachi after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US when he was kidnapped in January 2002.
He was among the numerous Western journalists who were in Pakistan to cover the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan in 2001.
He was believed to be on his way to interview an Islamist leader when he was kidnapped.
His case grabbed headlines globally, after a video of his beheading emerged weeks after Pearl was abducted.
“No evidence has been brought on record by the prosecution to link any of the appellants to the murder of Pearl and as such all the appellants are acquitted of murder,” said a two-member bench of the Sindh High Court, in a ruling seen by Reuters.
After hearing arguments and examining the record and proceedings of the case, a two-judge bench headed by Justice Mohamed Karim Khan Agha announced the verdict on the appeals filed by the convicts 18 years ago.
The court further dismissed an appeal of the state seeking enhancement of life prison terms of the three co-accused.
The court also acquitted all four of charges of kidnapping the American for ransom too, and found Sheikh guilty only on the charge of abduction.
Sheikh was sentenced to seven years on the abduction charge, but he is expected to be freed soon, given time he had already served.
“Omar has already served 18 years, so his release orders will be issued sometime today. He will be out in a few days,” Khawaja Naveed, a defence lawyer in the case, told Reuters.
The time since 2002 that Sheikh spent in jail would be counted as part of his term according to the British-era prison manual of Pakistan.
A senior Pakistani government law officer told Reuters via phone that the state would appeal against the Sindh High Court’s verdict.
Saleem Akhtar, a prosecutor in the case, told AFP that he would file a petition in the Supreme Court against yesterday’s verdict, which came from the high court of Sindh province.
“It is a very detailed verdict and I have to go through it thoroughly to prepare the grounds for the appeal,” he said, adding he hoped to file the appeal within two days.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office said that the issue pertains to the ministry of interior which “will be looking at the judgment in detail”.
The ministry of interior did not respond to a request for comment.
The US embassy in Islamabad declined to comment on the ruling and referred queries to the US State Department.
The convictions in Pearl’s murder case had been brought into question after another defendant, Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, one of the alleged masterminds of the September 11 attacks, told a US military tribunal in 2007 that he beheaded Pearl.
In January 2011, a report released by the Pearl Project at Georgetown University following an investigation into his death made chilling revelations, claiming that the wrong men were convicted for Pearl’s murder.
The investigation, led by Pearl’s friend and former Wall Street Journal colleague Asra Nomani and a Georgetown University professor, claimed that the reporter was murdered by Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, not Omar Sheikh.
Mohamed – better known as KSM – was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and is being held in Guantanamo Bay.
A US psychologist who interviewed KSM said the prisoner had told him that he had beheaded Pearl.
In 2014, a Pakistan anti-terrorism court acquitted Qari Hashim, who had been arrested in the case in 2005.
The judge at the time said there was a lack of evidence in the case.
In a statement, the Wall Street Journal said that it continues to seek justice for the murder of Pearl.
His widow, Mariane Pearl, was not immediately reachable for comment.
Another lawyer not involved in the case told Reuters that Pakistan would likely have to release all of the accused – the rest are Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adil – while any appeal was filed.
“The prosecution cannot stop their release in this case, unless they produce a Supreme Court interim order,” Mohamed Farooq, a lawyer at the Sindh High Court, said, adding that the government could also seek to keep them detained by using legislation related to the maintenance of public order.
“Legally they cannot stop their release in this particular case,” Farooq said.
Sheikh was born in Britain and enjoyed a privileged upbringing before going to study at the London School of Economics.
He was arrested in India in the 1990s for his involvement in the kidnapping of Western tourists in 1994 as part of Sheikh’s support of Muslim separatists battling Indian security forces in the disputed Kashmir region.
He was one of three men released from an Indian prison after militants hijacked an Indian airliner in late 1999 and flew it to Afghanistan, where the then-ruling Taliban regime helped negotiate an exchange.
The Indian foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the matter by Reuters.
Indian police later linked Sheikh to the September 11 attacks on the US, accusing him of involvement in transferring $100,000 to Mohamed Atta, one of the militants who flew airliners into New York’s World Trade Centre.
Pakistan is currently under close scrutiny by a global watchdog on terror financing, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), where the country’s inability to prosecute terrorism cases has been highlighted.
“The FATF situation is quite serious. I think pressure will come on Pakistan (after this verdict),” said Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank that monitors anti-terrorism policies in Pakistan.
He added that Pearl’s case was high-profile and bound to get global attention.
LEAVE A COMMENT Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*
Pilots with dubious credentials grounded
Balochistan extends smart lockdown
Punjab doctors fear spike in Covid-19 cases after Eid
Drugs, doctors and donors: Pakistanis turn to ‘Corona Warriors’ Facebook group
Army names first woman Lt General
Attack on PSX thwarted
Gunmen attack Pakistani stock exchange, six killed: police
Karachi’s District East the most coronavirus-affected area
Number of coronavirus cases passes 200,000