World Press Freedom Day Coincides With Pearl Family Appeal (with AUDIO INTERVIEW)
Daniel Pearl is shown before his beheading in a photo sent to media outlets by his kidnappers. (CNN via Getty Images)

World Press Freedom Day Coincides With Pearl Family Appeal (with AUDIO INTERVIEW)

The Media Line speaks with Judea Pearl about provincial court’s decision to release his son’s murderers

[Islamabad] The parents of the slain US journalist Daniel Pearl filed an appeal on Saturday with Pakistan’s Supreme Court, challenging a ruling that would free four men convicted in their son’s brutal kidnapping and murder.

In March, the Sindh Province’s high court in Karachi overturned the murder conviction of the man sentenced to death for masterminding the kidnapping and beheading in 2002.

Daniel Pearl, 38, had gone to Pakistan to write a story about terrorist groups following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. He was kidnapped in Karachi on January 23, 2002, and was decapitated by his captors nine days later. The beheading was videotaped.

Advocate Faisal Siddiqui, a Karachi-based leading human rights lawyer, filed the petition for Ruth and Judea Pearl.

Siddiqui told The Media Line, “The decision by the Sindh High Court to free the men in the murder of Daniel Pearl is a complete miscarriage of justice.”

“It is a defining case for the Pakistani state and its judicial system, involving freedom of the press, the sanctity of every life, freedom from terror and the manifestation of a welcoming and safe Pakistan to the world,” he said.

The Pearls, through their attorney, stated in their petition that “as parents, we are personally aggrieved by the gruesome kidnapping for ransom and murder, by beheading, of the deceased. Consequently, the petitioners are also aggrieved by the judgment passed by the Honorable Sindh High Court.”

“Omer Saeed Sheikh [the accused ringleader, who had his death sentence overturned] is internationally known as a British-Pakistani terrorist,” the petition also states. “He was arrested in the year 1999, concerning the kidnapping of foreigners in India, and remained in an Indian prison till December 1999. Thereafter, he was released from the Indian prison and sent to Afghanistan in exchange for passengers aboard a hijacked airliner,” the petition continues.

In an emotional video message, Ruth and Judea said, “Since 2002, when our son was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan, our lives have been upside down.

“In our grief, we dedicated ourselves to building bridges with Pakistan, hosting Pakistani journalists in our [Southern California] home, sponsoring music concerts in Pakistan and nurturing lifelong friendships,” they continued.

“We are standing up for justice, not only for our son, but for all of our dear friends in Pakistan, so they can live in a society free of violence and terror, and raise their children in peace and harmony,” the Pearls said.

Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement that “CPJ strongly supports the Pearl family’s pursuit of justice.”

“The release of Omer Saeed Sheikh and his accomplices would only add to the threats facing journalists in Pakistan and deepen Pakistan’s reputation as a haven for terrorists,” Butler said.

The Pearl Project, an initiative that investigated the kidnapping and murder, is leading the efforts to achieve justice for Daniel Pearl. In a partnership with the Committee to Protect Journalist and The Wall Street Journal, the project has paid half of the Pearl family’s legal fees.

Asra Nomani, co-founder of the Pearl Project, told The Media Line “the Daniel Pearl case underscores the universal principle of an absolute need for stringent accountability and justice.

“The death of any reporter, including Daniel Pearl, is a loss not only to his family and friends but to the much wider circle of people all over the world who rely on fair and inquisitive journalists to search out the truth,” she said.

“Governments and even judiciaries may be eager to close the books on such cases, but a failure to energetically and unequivocally hold the criminals accountable only raises the risks for other journalists facing similar perils,” Nomani said. “No civil society can survive such a casualty to justice or a free press.”

“According to our project’s multiyear investigation into Pearl’s murder, Omar Sheikh and his three fellows were co-conspirators in the kidnapping for ransom plot that led to Pearl’s murder and, by Pakistani legal standards of ‘common intent,’ they are directly and 100% responsible for Pearl’s murder,” she stressed.

“Eighteen years ago, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions devastated Ruth Pearl and Judea Pearl,” Nomani continued. “Thousands of miles from their home in California, their beloved son Daniel was betrayed by a man named Omar Sheikh and taken from this earth, never to hold his unborn child, embrace his mother or laugh with his father.”

“Now, in 2020, the couple suffered another devastating betrayal: The Sindh High Court ruled that Omer Sheikh and three co-conspirators convicted in Pearl’s murder would be freed,” she said.

“Through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, this elderly couple [Ruth and Judea] has had to harness every ounce of energy they have to navigate bureaucracies and file an appeal with the Supreme Court,” Nomani said.

Adnan Rehmat, an Islamabad-based senior media strategy advisor and co-founder of the Pakistan Coalition for Ethical Journalism (PCEJ), told The Media Line that “the conviction and sentencing in the Pearl case was Pakistan’s first success in combating impunity of crimes against journalists. However, the unexpected twist in this case whereby Omer Sheikh’s death sentence has been commuted to a life term and the life sentences of his two co-accused converted into acquittals comes as a shock for media rights campaigners in the country.

“Over 140 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since Daniel Pearl was brutally killed in 2002. Pakistan’s inability to convict the killers of more than three journalists puts Pakistan into the league of countries which does not take crimes against journalists seriously,” he said.

“The Federal and Sindh governments must urgently pass their much-delayed bills on the safety of journalists so that a proactive approach can be adopted to convict and punish killers of all journalists in Pakistan and to prevent future murders of journalists in the country,” Rehmat demanded.

Khalid Jamil, a prominent Islamabad-based journalists’ safety expert, told The Media Line that “Unfortunately, Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world where journalists face serious threats.

“At least 35 journalists were murdered in the line of duty during the last few years, including seven in the past year, but none of them received justice,” he said.

“Killings with impunity aside, there have been scores of incidents of attacks on journalists, acts of violence against media persons with perpetrators remaining unscathed, and Daniel Pearl’s case is the living example of impunity for the killers,” he said.

“Daniel was not just murdered by terrorists, he was killed by a sick ideology which has dominated our society,” Jamil continued. “After 18 years his family could not get justice, which indicates the worst flaws in Pakistan’s justice system, which is now in dire need of reform.”

Meanwhile, the Sindh provincial government on April 22 already challenged the court rulings overturning the convictions of the four defendants in the Pearl case.

Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based human rights lawyer and national security analyst, told The Media Line that “The appeal of the Sindh provincial government against the high court decision is a very positive sign, as it indicates a healthy process of reviewing the erroneous or unjust decision by courts from within the country itself.”

Tsukerman further told the Media Line that, “although conviction of all relevant culprits will not bring Daniel Pearl back to his family, having a transparent process would offer a modicum of satisfaction to his family and would prevent more innocent lives from being taken by those with terrorist intents,” she said.

“Pakistani courts need to show that they are independent and will not submit to political pressure from seditious or extremist factions seeking to interfere with governance and to stand in the way of improvement in Pakistan-US relations,” she added.

“The only effective deterrent against extremist ideology is to make it appear shameful, unwelcome and marginalized by every part of the political and the governance system in the country,” Tsukerman said.

Alice Wells, the US principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, in her latest tweet on Sunday, said, “On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, we honor the legacy of journalist Daniel Pearl.

“We appreciate the Govt of Pakistan’s appeal to reinstate guilty verdicts against Daniel’s murderers, now buttressed by the filing of the Pearl family’s appeal before the Supreme Court,” she said.

The Media Line’s Felice Friedson spoke with Judea Pearl on World Press Freedom Day about the court’s decision to free his son’s murderers. An audio recording of the interview can be found at the bottom of the page.

The Media Line: Judea Pearl is the father of Daniel Pearl, the journalist that was killed in Pakistan. Judea, the courts in Pakistan are allowing the killers of your son to go free. How are you handling this?

Judea Pearl: I think it is a travesty of justice but we have just filed an appeal in the name of the family. You know, there is an appeal initiated by the region to the Supreme Court but we decided that we need to have the family present in some ways so we have filed separate appeals on behalf of the family to the Supreme Court to annul the acquittal, and this was filed today, I believe in Karachi and we hope the Supreme Court will listen to the voice of justice.

TML: Why do you think that they have allowed them to go free?

JP: This is a high-profile case. What happened to Daniel was a high-profile tragedy. Therefore, the eyes of the world are focusing now on the message that the Supreme Court of Pakistan will send to its citizens and to the rest of the world. The issue of whether the Supreme Court of Pakistan will send a message of impunity to would-be terrorists like Omar Sheikh or a message of peace and assurance to its own citizens that Pakistan is a state of law. And the message is not just about terrorism. It is also about the action of journalism. It is a message to every journalist and his family around the world.

TML: Today is World Press [Freedom] Day…

JP: It is very fitting and I am happy that it coincides with our appeal. It is the national… You know, that the Committee for the Protection of Journalists is working with us and they issued a very strong statement on behalf of the freedom, what it means for the future of the freedom of press, not only in Pakistan but everywhere because there are dozens of cells, radical cells, that are looking at Pakistan; looking at the future of Omar Sheikh. He is a role model and whatever happens to him will encourage them or discourage them. A message of impunity to people who plan to abduct and play games with the lives of innocent journalists will be detrimental to the lives of future journalists.

TML: Judea, thank you so much for taking this time to join The Media Line.

JP: Thank you!

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