Pearl case ends after 18 years, all suspects released

ISLAMABAD: After a long span of 18 years, Pakistan Supreme Court today (Thursday) ordered the release of a Pakistan-origin British suspect convicted and later acquitted in the gruesome 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl. The court also dismissed an appeal against Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh’s acquittal by Pearl’s family.

Daniel Pearl, 38, was doing research on religious extremism in Karachi when he was abducted in January 2002. A graphic video showing his decapitation was delivered to the US consulate a month later. Subsequently, Sheikh was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to death by a trial court.

A file picture shows Daniel Pearl in custody of militants

The short order was issued by a three-judge bench headed by Justice Mushir Alam. One judge opposed the decision.

“The court has come out to say that there is no offence that he has committed in this case,” Mahmood A. Sheikh (no relation with the suspect), who represented Sheikh, said.

He added the court had ordered that three others, who had been sentenced to life in prison for their part in the kidnapping and death, also be freed.

“Today’s decision is a complete travesty of justice and the release of these killers puts in danger journalists everywhere and the people of Pakistan,” the Pearl family said in a statement released by their counsel.

The decision comes a day after Sheikh told the Sindh High Court (SHC) he played a “minor” role in the killing, without further elaboration.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in police custody

A letter handwritten by him in 2019, in which he admits limited involvement in the killing, was submitted nearly two weeks ago. It wasn’t until Wednesday that Sheikh’s lawyers confirmed their client wrote it.

Nowhere in the three-page letter addressed to the SHC did Sheikh elaborate or say exactly what his allegedly minor role in Pearl’s slaying involved.

Sheikh has been on death row since his conviction in the death of Pearl in 2002. His attorney said Sheikh “should not have spent one day in jail.”

Earlier, the United States had said that it may seek to try Sheikh if efforts to keep him in prison failed.

In a statement last month, the then-US acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said that America “stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial here” after the SHC overturned a government detention order that Sheikh should remain in custody.

Pakistan Supreme Court

Washington previously said it would demand Sheikh be extradited to the United States to be tried there. There was no immediate reaction from the US embassy in Islamabad to the court order upholding the appeal.

Pearl was abducted on January 23, 2002, in Karachi and beheaded the next month, reportedly by Al-Qaeda. Sheikh had been convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in Karachi in which he was kidnapped.

Prior to his kidnapping, the journalist had been investigating the link between reportedly Pakistan-based militants and Richard Reid, the notorious “Shoe Bomber” who attempted to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes.

In July 2002, following the hearings, an anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Hyderabad had sentenced to death Sheikh and life term to other co-accused. However, all four convicts had moved the SHC in 2002 challenging their convictions.

In his autobiography, In the Line of Fire: A Memoir, former president Pervaiz Musharraf had claimed that Sheikh, a British national and a student at the London School of Economics (reports suggest he did not graduate), was hired by MI6 to engage in “jihadi operations”, adding that “at some point, he probably became a rogue or a double agent”.