Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan on Thursday has ordered the immediate release of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a key suspect in the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter and South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl in 2002.
A three-member bench of the SC headed by Justice Mushir Alam heard the appeal filed by the Sindh government and family of the slain journalist. The petition was filed against an order of the Sindh High Court (SHC) issued in Dec. 2020 to immediately release Sheikh from the prison after it had acquitted him and three other suspects in Apr. 2020 in the Pearl murder case.
The SC judges, after hearing the appeal, in a majority ruling of 2-1, upheld the decision of the Sindh high court and dismissed the appeals. The court in its decision said that the provincial government’s detention orders were illegal and that neither the provincial nor the federal government had to cause to keep Sheikh in custody.
“The court has come out to say that there is no offence that he has committed in this case,” Mahmood Sheikh, who represented Sheikh, told AFP after the verdict was announced. Sheikh's counsel said his client could be released as soon as Friday.
“It depends upon how fast the government of Sindh will be in obeying and implementing the order of the Supreme Court of Pakistan,” he said.
The US expresses deep concerns over the decision:
The newly appointed US Secretary of State Antony j. Blinken reacted to the decision and expressed his concerns. In a statement issued by the Department of State, Blinken said:
"The United States is deeply concerned by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to acquit those involved in Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder and any proposed action to release them...The court’s decision is an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan. The United States recognizes past Pakistani actions to hold Omar Sheikh accountable and notes that Sheikh currently remains detained under Pakistani law. We expect the Pakistani government to expeditiously review its legal options to ensure justice is served."
Blinken said that the US is "also prepared to prosecute Sheikh in the United States for his horrific crimes against an American citizen."
Foreign Office refuses to comment:
The Foreign Office spokesperson Zahid Hafeez Chaudhary on Thursday - during the weekly briefing - refused to offer comments on the proceedings. The spokesperson said, “[he is] not in a position to comment on the verdict of Supreme court in the Daniel Pearl case until the full verdict is issued."
Daniel Pearl case:
Sheikh, a British-born Pakistani, was convicted of masterminding Pearl’s murder and given the death penalty in 2002. In Jul. 2002, The UK Parliament put forward a motion, signed by 24 members including Labour party chief Jeremy Corbyn, to urges the Pakistani authorities to show clemency to Omar Saeed Sheikh.
In April 2020, after 18 years since an Anti-Terrorism court had sentenced him to death, Sindh's provincial court overturned the verdict and acquitted him and three accomplices of murder charges, ordering their release. The decision was based on the grounds that the initial prosecution’s evidence was insufficient.
However, provincial government authorities kept Sheikh and the others behind the bars, arguing that they may act “against the interest of the country”. The decision was taken under a law allowing authorities to detain high-profile militants for three months.
In Apr. 2020, an appeal was filled at Sindh High Court against the controversial acquittal after Sindh government and Pearl’s parents lodged a petition. The SHC in Dec. declared the continued detention of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh as “null and void”.
The SC of Pakistan also upheld SHC's decision and ordered the immediate release of Sheikh and his co-conspirator. The decision came nearly two weeks after a handwritten letter by Omar Sheikh was admitted to the court in which he confessed to playing a “minor” role in the killing. However, the accused's counsel told the court that the letter was written under extreme duress.
Pearl was a US citizen kidnapped in Karachi in January 2002 while he was allegedly investigating links between militants in Pakistan and the so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid. The Wall Street journalist was then beheaded, with a video of the killing posted online. However, Sheikh always denied his role in his killing, and questions remained over whether he was just a secondary figure involved in the kidnapping.
Who killed Pearl?
A deep-dive investigative report into Pearl's death by his friend and former colleague Asra Nomani and the director of journalism at Georgetown University Barbara Feinman Todd, published in 2011 by Georgetown, raised suspicions on the extent of involvement of Sheikh in Wall Street reporter's death.
Nomani shared in the report that while Sheikh and three others had been convicted there "were still men on the streets who had been allegedly involved but not charged. And [before pursuing the Pearl project] we didn’t have a clue who had actually killed him."
After three-and-a-half years of an extensive investigation into the gruesome murder, Asra and his team at Georgetown team concluded:
- Members of at least three different militant groups took part in the crimes, including a team of kidnappers led by British-Pakistani Omar Sheikh and a team of killers led by Al Qaeda strategist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also known as KSM
- KSM told FBI agents in Guantanamo that he personally slit Pearl’s throat and severed his head. The doubts regarding his confession forced cause of “waterboarding” - a form of torture - were removed when FBI agents and CIA officials used a technique called vein-matching to compare the hand of the killer in the murder video with a photo of Mohammed’s hand
- In their haste to close the case, Pakistani authorities knowingly used perjured testimony to pin the actual act of murder on Omar Sheikh and his three co-conspirators
- While the four were involved in the kidnapping plan and certainly were culpable, they were not present when Pearl was murdered
- Pearl’s actual murderers will likely not stand trial for their crime. Federal officials decided in the summer of 2006 not to add the Pearl murder to charges against KSM in military tribunals because they concluded that would complicate plans to prosecute him and four alleged accomplices in the 9/11 attacks