Covering Pearl’s case

Having covered many stories of terrorism and target killing — I was never as excited in my career as I was when on July 15, 2002, my boss at the AFP informed me that we were ahead of our rival agencies in breaking the story of the verdict of the court trying those accused of the murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal South Asia Correspondent. At that time I was AFP’s bureau chief in Karachi.

Having covered many stories of terrorism and target killing — I was never as excited in my career as I was when on July 15, 2002, my boss at the AFP informed me that we were ahead of our rival agencies in breaking the story of the verdict of the court trying those accused of the murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal South Asia Correspondent. At that time I was AFP’s bureau chief in Karachi.

AFP’s one-liner was, Court sentences Sheikh Omar to death for abducting and murdering Daniel Pearl. The other three accused: Fahad Nasim, a BCom student, Adil Sheikh, a policeman working for the Special Branch, and Suleman Saqib were sentenced to life imprisonment.

It was not easy to take the lead in breaking the story as the verdict was announced inside Hyderabad Prison where no journalists were allowed. Extraordinary security arrangements had been in place in an around the prison since the previous night.

From the day the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) reserved judgment on July 10, I had started working on getting the news first and getting it right. I was lucky to have some good contacts among prison officials and the Home Department.

First, I went to the then Prisons IG, Brig Nisar Mehar (retired) and requested him to allow us to be present in the court room. “Mazhar, I know you for some time but I have orders from the top not to allow media inside,” he said.

I did not lose hope and requested him next to transfer the deputy jail chief, Amanullah, to Hyderabad from Karachi. “I don’t understand the point in sending Aman there,” Mehar said. However, he eventually accepted my request.

The night before the verdict about one hundred local and foreign journalists reached Hyderabad and stayed at a hotel opposite the Hyderabad Prison. I called the then Home Secretary, Brig Mukhtar (retired) and asked to be allowed at the hearing. He laughed and said, “there is only one way I can send you to the prison.” I replied, “To be honest, I don’t mind spending a few hours in prison if you allow me to see the proceedings next morning and call my office after the verdict.” He said, “I have been told by Islamabad that the PTV will break the story. We will let you know after that.”

So, the only option left for me was to receive my information through Aman. I failed in my first attempt to contact him as intelligence people posted at the gate did not let us enter. We were in Aman’s car.

Inside the prison, the PTV was ready and its correspondent, Iqbal Jameel, was standing near the court room to break the story. I got a call from the Prisons IGP who said he could take only one of us (me and Riffat) with him. I was not sure whether mobile phones would work inside so I asked Riffat to go inside and waited for his call. He took no time in passing the news to me with a quote from IGP Mehar.

The rest is history but I still remember that some of my foreign colleagues rushed to me and asked, “The AFP says Omar has been sentenced to death. Is that correct? I said, it was.

I remain grateful to Aman, an upright officer who, years later, was assassinated by militants (not related to do with this case).

Some 18 years later, when the Sindh High Court announced the verdict on the appeal filed by Sheikh Omar and three others, there was not much excitement. I was among the few journalists who reached the court in the morning on April 2. It could have been a much bigger story had stories about coronavirus pandemic not squeezed the space. No foreign correspondent was there at the SHC.

The court upheld the acquittal plea of three convicts and reduced the sentence of Omar, from death to seven years in prison. Within 24 hours, the Home Department had ordered their detention for three months under the Maintenance of Public Order law.

The US and world media reacted sharply, expressing their concern over the relief granted to the convicts 18 years later.

The Sindh government is now filing an appeal. The US government feels strongly that the prosecution did not follow the case properly. There were weak links in the case and I had written about them, particularly the murder aspect, which I believe was not properly investigated.

The story was particularly painful at times. Let me revisit some of those moments as the story has once again come alive with an appeal to be filed in the Supreme Court this week.

It was around mid February 2002. At about 2 am I got a call from AFP, Paris, that a rival news agency was reporting that the body of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who had gone missing on January 23 from Karachi, had been found and was being kept at the MidEast Hospital in Clifton. They wanted the story quickly. It was a race against time. I jumped from my bed and started calling my contacts.

First, I called former Sindh Police IG, Syed Kamal Shah. His number was busy. Then I called Jamil Yusuf, the former Citizen Police Liaison Committee chief, who had been part of the investigation. Thankfully, he picked up my phone and said, “Mazhar, we still need to verify this but the body appears to be that of Pearl’s.” I sent the quote to Paris and rushed to the hospital. It was around 3 am. I and a few other journalists remained close to the hospital till 6 am before the officials finally declared that the body was not Pearl’s. They said it was some Iranian (if I remember correctly).

Daniel Pearl had disappeared on January 23. The news appearing on the back page of daily Jang had said that a US reporter had gone missing near Metropole Hotel. The story made headlines when on January 27, the WSJ received an email from a then unknown group, National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistan’s Sovereignty, containing a photo of Pearl with a gun pointed at his head and demands for the release of some Taliban and Pakistani alleged militants.

On January 30, the WSJ received another email with another photo and a threat that the reporter would be killed unless their demands were met within 24 hours. The two emails were enough to make it the world’s biggest story. It became even bigger when, weeks later on February 21, a video-tape depicting Pearl’s slaying was delivered at the US Consulate in Karachi. Later, the video was displayed in the court on May 14. According to those present, it was a horrible thing to watch.

The case was heard first at the anti-terrorism court in Karachi. We used to hang outside the prison for hours till the prosecution and defence lawyers briefed the journalists from their respective perspectives. When the case was transferred to Hyderabad, journalists, particularly those working for the international media had to travel about 160 kilometres from Karachi for each hearing.

On June 21, Sheikh Omar recorded his testimony. “Proclaiming my innocence I beg to assert that I have been involved in a false case using fabricated evidence,” he said. He said his much-publicised remarks that he knew Pearl was dead were also fake. He challenged the prosecution to produce the recording of his statement.

Omar, who was 28 years old when arrested, also denied sending any email or delivering any video to the US Consulate. “These are all false charges. I don’t know Pearl. Nor have I ever met him. I was in Lahore on January 23, the day when he disappeared,” Omar added.

The year 2002 was one of the most devastating for Karachi which saw a series of bombings and target killings. Still the Pearl murder story dominated the year. Sheikh Omar had first became known to the world when he was among the three alleged militants released from Indian prisons in 1999 after the hijacking of an Indian airliner that landed at Jalalabad airport in Afghanistan. The other two were Maulana Masood Azhar and Fazlur Rehman.

He surrendered on February 5, after immense pressure was brought on his family, including his uncle, Rauf Sheikh, who was a district judge. It was reported that Brig Ejaz Shah (retired, now interior minister), had an important in his capture.

It was horrific when I learnt that the police had finally found the remains of Daniel Pearl at a compound at the outskirts of Karachi near Sohrab Goth, where Pearl had been allegedly kept and beheaded. Journalists were not allowed inside the compound. We watched the operation from a distance.

I still remember the day when we were going to Hyderabad to cover the Pearl case on May 8 when I got a call from a friend who lived near Sheraton Hotel. He said he had heard a huge explosion. A few minutes later he said a bus had been hit by a car and that had caused the blast.

I was travelling along with two other reporters and a photo-journalist from the AFP. We parked the car and started gathering details. I was contacted by our office in Islamabad and Rana Jawad, now the news director for Geo TV, was there. He confirmed that it was a suicide bomber that hit the Navy’s bus. We decided to go back, calling our contacts in the Navy. Finally, it was confirmed that 11 French engineers had been killed in the hit.

The New Zealand cricket team, which was in Pakistan for a Test series, had been staying at the hotel near the road. They were about to leave for the match when the bomb went off. They cancelled the match and flew home the same evening.

A month later, on June 22, about a month before the judgment in Pearl’s case was announced, 12 people were killed outside the US Consulate when a Suzuki pick-up loaded with explosives hit the Consulate. Despite these incidents, the Pearl story continued to be the top draw.

During these years, certain stories about Omar created a huge sensation; as when from his death cell, he somehow managed to get an international SIM and made a call to the then president General Musharraf, pretending to be the Indian external affairs minister. It was a huge intelligence lapse.

The most mysterious part of the case, which eventually resulted in the benefit of the doubt going to the accused, was the murder. For reasons best known to the investigators, the prosecution focused only on the conspiracy and kidnapping.

Had they charged people like Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the Al Qaeda number 3, Fazal Karim, Saud Memon, Naveed and a few others, whom the agencies had arrested but never formally charged in Daniel Pearl case and recovered the weapon used in the murder, the prosecution could have had a stronger case. One has to wait for the final verdict from the Supreme Court.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst for Geo, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO

Covering deceased journalist Daniel Pearl’s case