Case pending

April 26, 2020

Eighteen years on, the fate of Daniel Pearl murder case accused remains undecided amid slow and weak prosecution. An appeal has been filed by the government against Omer Sheikh’s acquittal by Sindh High Court

On April2, a two-member bench of Sindh High Court, deciding an appeal by the convicts, acquitted three of the four in the high-profile kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and overturned the death sentence awarded to Ahmed Omer Saeed Sheikh. On April 22, the government of Sindh filed an appeal against the verdict before the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

The high court upheld the trial court order holding Sheikh guilty of kidnapping Pearl but set aside the murder conviction and reduced his prison sentence to seven years with a Rs 2 million fine (requiring him to serve another two years in jail in case the fine is not paid). The court also acquitted his three alleged accomplices – Fahad Naseem, Syed Salman Saqib and Sheikh Mohammad Adil – setting aside their life imprisonment. Considering Sheikh has been in prison for 18 years, he was eligible for immediate release. This was prevented by issuing a detention order under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance.

Pearl, a US citizen, was South Asia correspondent for the WSJ. He was in his late 30s when he was kidnapped in January 2002 in Karachi, a few months after War on Terror began. His captors, later, released a video tape of his murder. Pearl had been researching stories about religious extremists in Karachi. Sheikh, the key accused in the case, was arrested in 2002. An Anti Terrorism Court in July 2002 sentenced him to death and awarded life imprisonment to his three accomplices.

British-born Sheikh was reported to have been involved in militancy and was believed to have developed links with Harkatul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Al Qaeda. His family had moved to Lahore in 1987 where studied at the elite Aitchison College before he returned to Britain to study at the London School of Economics. In 1997, he was arrested by the Indian security forces for militancy in Indian Occupied Kashmir. He was released along with Masood Azhar of JeM and others following the hijacking of an Indian airliner.

However, the SHC has held that the prosecution failed in the Daniel Pearl murder case to prove Sheikh’s link to the murder. The court found the prosecution weak and the evidence lacking. It also observed that appeals should be decided without such long delays. The court observed that the police had clearly been under huge pressure to ‘get results’ either in terms of safe return of Pearl or arrest and conviction of those responsible for his disappearance. “Under these circumstances, it would not be completely surprising if the police resorted to rough tactics in order to extract confessions. It was unknown where and when Pearl was murdered and it would not be safe to convict Sheikh for kidnapping for ransom or murder on the basis of last-seen-together evidence without strong, unimpeachable corroborative evidence, which was lacking in the case,” the court maintained in its judgment.

Soon after the SHC judgment was rendered, US government expressed its disappointment with it. Within hours of the judgment, Pakistani authorities issued orders to detain the acquitted for 90 days and announced that an appeal would be against the judgment and the Supreme Court would be asked to suspend the SHC judgment.

Barrister Mahmood A Sheikh, the counsel for Omer Sheikh, says that the re-arrest of his client after his acquittal was based on a malafide exercise of authority. He says he will appeal against this as soon as possible. He says the high court had clearly said that there was no proof of Sheikh seeking a ransom from the Pearl family or of killing Pearl. “For us, the order of the SHC is to be complied with. The appellant is a free man illegally put behind the bars by the state. When circumstances allow us, and the coronavirus situation improves we will try to get the case started without further delay.”

“Pakistan failed in prosecuting many persons linked to cases of terrorism. It will continue to face this difficulty without putting in place strong prosecution and laws. If the situation continues like this the Pearl murder case against Sheikh might also fall through in SC,” says security analyst Zahid Hussain.

Over the years, Pakistani law enforcement agencies have rounded up and killed several people suspected of involvement in the Pearl murder case. In 2003, Pakistani agencies captured a senior Al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammad from Rawalpindi. He was handed over to the United States in 2007. While held in Guantanamo Bay (prison), he reportedly confessed to beheading Pearl.

Even 18 years after the murder, a final determination has not been reached for those accused of killing Pearl irrespective of whether they are held in Pakistani or American custody.

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]

Fate of Daniel Pearl murder case accused remains undecided amid slow and weak prosecution