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4 Suspects in Gruesome Beheading of Daniel Pearl Ordered Released
Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, the alleged mastermind behind Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's abduction, arrives at the provincial high court in Karachi, Pakistan on March 29, 2002. (Getty Images)

4 Suspects in Gruesome Beheading of Daniel Pearl Ordered Released

Family, provincial government appealing acquittals to Supreme Court of Pakistan as provincial high court says there is no justifiable reason for their continued detention.

[Islamabad] A top Pakistani provincial court has ordered the immediate release of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and his three alleged co-conspirators in the brutal murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl in February 2002.

Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani origin, was sentenced to death the same year for killing Pearl, but his conviction was overturned by a Pakistani court in April. He is likely to go free on Saturday.

The Sindh High Court, located in Karachi, ruled on Thursday that “the detention orders for the prime accused, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, and three co-conspirators, Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil, and Salman Saqib, are null and void.”

The court also ordered that “none of the accused be placed under any preventive detention order by the federal government, provincial government, any law enforcement agency or any other body without the prior permission of the High Court.”

The prosecution could not present concrete evidence against the accused

The Sindh High Court, however, also ordered that the men’s names be placed on the Exit Control List, a no-fly list that prevents them from leaving the country, and that no action be taken against them without a court directive.

Karachi Central Prison sources confirmed to the Media Line that “the accused men could be released on Saturday, as December 25 will be a national holiday and Christmas as well.” December 25 is the birthday of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan.

Pearl, The Wall Street Journal’s South Asian bureau chief, had been investigating a story about the alleged financing of al-Qaida via Pakistan-based militants. Pearl disappeared in Karachi on Jan. 23, 2002, on the way to what he believed would be an interview, and was decapitated by his captors nine days later. Video of Pearl’s murder by beheading was sent to the U.S. consulate.

The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty extremist group claimed responsibility for abducting Pearl, but Pakistani security officials said the kidnappers were members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned al-Qaida affiliate.

Karachi police arrested the four men in February 2002. In June 2002, a counterterrorism court sentenced Sheikh to death by hanging. The three others were sentenced to life in prison.

An appeals court in Karachi overturned Sheikh’s murder conviction in April, ruling that he was guilty only of kidnapping Pearl. The court commuted Sheikh’s death sentence to seven years in prison and acquitted his three accomplices.

Sheikh has already spent 18 years on death row, which the court said would be counted as time served toward his seven-year sentence, paving the way for his release.

However, the Sindh Province government decided to keep the four men in preventive detention under a relevant section of the Anti-Terrorism Act, and all of them were rearrested a day after the court freed them.

According to the law, the government may order preventive detention for a period of 90 days for any person accused of terrorism, and it cannot be challenged in court. The detention orders have been renewed every three months, including most recently in October 2020.

Salman Talib Ud Deen, the Sindh advocate general, told the court on Thursday that the current preventative detention order is set to expire on Dec. 27.

The court said “it is possible that the Sindh government will once again detain the petitioners under another preventive detention order to prevent their release from jail.”

However, in announcing its decision on Thursday, the High Court observed that the “concerned authorities remain unable to produce justified reasons for the continued detention of the accused persons, who had filed an appeal against their continuous detention since their release order in April 2020.”

A senior high court official who witnessed the trial told The Media Line on condition of anonymity that “no agency, including the police, acted seriously in this high-profile case. The prosecution of the case was very weak, due to which the accused are being declared innocent.”

He added: “The prosecution could not present concrete evidence against the accused.”

The official continued that “even during the final hearing on Thursday, Justice Amjad Ali Sehto expressed displeasure over the mistakes and shortcomings in the previous detention notification, and asked the Home Department to hire some literate persons.

“The High Court judge asked the officials whether anyone had read what was written in the notification,” he said.

“Where had it been written that Omer Sheikh was a terrorist and associated with any banned outfit?” Sehto asked, according to the official.

The justice said there was no mention of any intelligence agency’s report in the detention notification.

“How can you detain someone in a democratic society” in this way, the judge asked, according to the high court official concluded.

The Sindh government and Pearl’s parents have filed separate appeals with the Supreme Court against the appellant court’s April acquittal judgment.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan took up the appeals against the acquittals of Sheikh and his fellow accused on December 1.

Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth, in a statement tweeted Thursday said: “We refuse to believe that the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people will let such a travesty of justice tarnish the image and legacy of Pakistan. We believe that our son’s murderers should remain in jail because of the Supreme Court appeals, and we are also heartened to hear the government of Pakistan is filing an appeal against the latest release order so that our son’s murderers will remain in jail and justice will prevail. We have full confidence in the Supreme Court of Pakistan to provide justice for our beloved son and reinforce the paramount importance of the freedom of the press.”

Barrister Farooq Ahmad Naik, a leading lawyer and Sindh government counsel, told the Supreme Court that the accused had hatched the plot to kidnap Pearl while in a hotel in Rawalpindi, in northern Pakistan.

“They sent an email to the victim’s wife after the kidnapping and demanded ransom money. As their demand was not met, they brutally killed him and released the video of their heinous crime. I will produce details of the witness accounts in the next hearing,” Naik told the three-judge bench.

Faisal Siddiqui, the Pearl family’s lawyer, told The Media Line that the Supreme Court will resume its hearings on Jan. 5, 2021, “and I will argue there.” Siddiqui declined to comment further on the case.

Meanwhile, Nadeem Ahmad, Sheikh’s lawyer, told The Media Line that “the accused in Daniel’s case have already served their sentences and there is no impediment now to their release following today’s decision by the High Court.”

“As soon the prison authorities receive the High Court orders, all of them will be freed,” Ahmad added.

We refuse to believe that the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people will let such a travesty of justice tarnish the image and legacy of Pakistan

Paris-based Pauline Adès-Mével, editor-in-chief of the freedom of information advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, told The Media Line that it is difficult to get justice for journalists harmed in the line of duty. “Although we [Reporters Without Borders] oppose the death penalty, the decision to release him symbolizes the impunity for crimes against journalists,” she said.

The Sindh High Court’s decision provoked reactions from around the world, but neither Pakistan’s federal government nor provincial authorities have yet commented on the ruling.

The US State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs tweeted: “We are deeply concerned by the reports of the December 24 ruling of Sindh High Court to release multiple terrorists responsible for the murder of Daniel Pearl. We have been assured that the accused have not been released at this time.”

“We understand that this case is ongoing and will be following closely. We continue to stand with the Pearl family through this extremely difficult process. We continue to honor Daniel Pearl’s legacy as a courageous journalist,” the bureau added.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based Jewish advocacy group, tweeted that: “Again Pakistan’s justice system releases one of Daniel Pearl’s murderers. Pearl was kidnapped and butchered because he was a Jew. The US should demand re-incarceration.”

 

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