LAHORE: A fresh investigation into the January 2002 abduction and subsequent beheading of the American journalist Daniel Pearl has revealed that Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed and his three co-accomplices, who had been handed down capital punishment by a Karachi court in July same year, did not commit the murder and were not even present at the crime scene.
Sponsored by the Georgetown University, Washington, the findings of the three-and-a-half-year long investigation have concluded that the four militants convicted in the killing, including the prime accused, Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed, did help kidnap the journalist but did not kill him.
The findings of the investigation report, titled “The Truth Left Behind: Inside the Kidnapping and Murder of Daniel Pearl,” actually endorse the March 2007 confession of al-Qaeda’s former chief operational commander Khalid Sheikh Mohammad to having slaughtered Pearl. Khalid was arrested from Rawalpindi in March 2003 and handed over to the US.
He told the FBI agents that he had a purpose in the Pearl killing: “I wanted to make sure I got the death penalty” if the US caught him, and so he wanted blood on his hands. One of the more gruesome findings of the investigation report is that the videotaping of Pearl’s beheading was initially bungled and that the killing had to be re-enacted.
Khalid had already slashed Pearl’s neck when the cameraman had to restart the taping. The second time, Khalid fully severed the head.
The 38-year-old American had traveled to Pakistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks and was abducted from Karachi on January 23, 2002, before being beheaded by the Islamic militants while working on an investigative story about the alleged intelligence links of some Pakistani militant leaders.
On February 21, 2002, a video of Pearl’s killing was delivered to US officials in Pakistan. His remains were eventually found in a shallow grave on Karachi’s outskirts three months later.
Shortly after Pearl’s disappearance, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani origin, and three accomplices were caught, charged, and convicted of murder and kidnapping.
However, the findings of the fresh probe have raised questions about Pakistan’s flawed criminal justice system, saying the four men were convicted of the Pearl murder primarily because the Pakistani authorities knowingly relied on perjured testimony and ignored other leads.
According to the findings, which have been published by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, “Justice was not served; Leads weren’t followed; suspects weren’t interviewed and alleged co-conspirators weren’t prosecuted. The truth was left behind. Pakistan closed the case. The US let the case go dormant, with one FBI agent told by his boss, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
The report says 14 of 27 people involved in the abduction and subsequent beheading of Pearl are still at large, five are already dead, four have already been convicted and the remaining four are under detention but have not yet been tried by the Pakistani authorities.
The report adds that the four men convicted in the Pearl murder could be released if their appeal is ever heard because of false and contradictory evidence used in the trial. The four convicted men including Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed, a London School of Economics’ graduate-turned-Jihadi, and three of his accomplices, Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adeel, were put on trial on April 22, 2002 and were handed down capital punishment almost three months later, in July 2002, after a summary trial by an Anti Terrorism Court.
But almost eight-and-a-half years after being sentenced to death, the Pearl killers are lucky enough to have dodged the gallows during all those years, primarily because the Sindh High Court has yet to decide their appeals against the death sentence.
Both the defence and the prosecution blame each other for stalling tactics. According to the defence attorney Rai Basheer, the prosecution knows it would lose on appeal and is delaying the process, but prosecutor Raja Qureshi dismissed those claims, saying, “I challenge the defence to come and attend the case properly and consistently, and they will themselves know whose case is weak”.
Yet the fresh findings have strengthened the case of Omar Sheikh and his co-accomplices. For instance, it finds significant discrepancies between the Pakistani police reports as well as in the court testimonies, including that of a taxi driver whose account was considered crucial to the conviction.
As per the fresh American findings, “the Pakistani authorities apparently cajoled the driver to change his earlier story and, while testifying, place Omar Sheikh with Daniel Pearl near the restaurant where the American journalist was picked up by his abductors. But as a matter of fact, Sheikh is believed to have left Karachi before other men he had recruited carried out the kidnapping.”
Currently languishing in a Hyderabad jail, the accused had approached the Sindh High Court, challenging the verdict of the Anti Terrorism Court. But their appeals have not yet been decided despite a lapse of over eight years.
Omar Sheikh’s defence lawyer Rai Bashir, who is also the chairman of the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Lawyers Forum, maintains that Pearl’s case had taken a new twist in the wake of the confessional statement by Khaled Sheikh and the findings of the American journalist, proving his contention that his client was innocent. “What we were saying for so many years is that Omar is innocent and had not committed that murder. We are happy that this version has been verified by none other than the Americans”, adds Rai Bashir who now plans to take up these developments before the Sindh High Court whenever Omar Sheikh’s appeal is heard.
But contrary to his lawyer’s contention, the hard fact remains that at his initial court appearance in April 2002, Sheikh Omar had almost confessed to his crime by stating before the court: “I don’t want to defend myself. I did this... Rightly or wrongly, I had my reasons. I think our country shouldn’t be catering to American needs”.