The Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered Thursday’s release of a Pakistani-British man accused and later acquitted in the 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
The court also rejected an appeal lodged by Pearl’s family and the Pakistani government against Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh’s acquittal.
The government had exhausted all options to keep him locked up, an indicator that Sheikh could be released within days, a minister in the Sindh province where Sheikh is being held said. Murtaza Wahab, Sindh’s law minister, told The Associated Press that the “Supreme Court is the court of last resort.”
“With the majority decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to acquit and release Ahmed Omer Sheikh and the other accused who kidnapped and killed Daniel Pearl, the Pearl family is in complete shock,” the Pearl family said in a statement issued by their counsel, Faisal Siddiqi.
In 2002, years before the Islamic State party started publishing footage of their beheadings of journalists, the violence of Pearl’s killing surprised many. An autopsy report spoke of the horrific descriptions of the murder and dismemberment of the Wall Street Journal writer.
Sheikh was accused of helping attract Pearl to a meeting at which he was abducted in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi. After his attempt to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives concealed in his shoes, Pearl had been investigating the connection between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, nicknamed the ‘shoe bomber’.
Soon after a video of his beheading was delivered to the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pearl’s body was found in a shallow grave.
Sheikh has long denied any complicity in Pearl’s murder, but on Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard that he admitted writing a letter acknowledging a minor part in 2019, raising expectations for some that he would keep behind bars.
After his arrest, Sheikh has been on death row, even after his eventual acquittal, and is currently being held in a Karachi prison. According to the Pearl family counsel, a three-judge supreme court ruled 2 to 1 to uphold Sheikh’s acquittal and ordered him released.
Sheikh’s counsel said that the court had ordered the release of three other Pakistanis who had been sentenced to life in jail for their role in the abduction and death of Pearl. The three, Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil and Salman Saqib, all played smaller positions, such as having a laptop or internet connection to give Pearl’s photographs, with a gun to his head, insisting that all inmates be released at Guantanamo Bay prison in the U.S. prison. Even then, the four were charged with the same offences at the initial trial.
Mehmood A. Sheikh, who is not linked to his lawyer, said, “These individuals should not have been in jail for even one day.”
He cautioned the provincial government of Sindh against delaying their release, as his client has done in the past, even after being slapped with a charge of contempt.
I hope that by proceeding… the Sindh government will not make a mockery of justice For no reasonable cause whatsoever, to not release them,” he said.
Washington had previously said that, if the acquittal was upheld, it would seek Sheikh’s extradition to the United States to be prosecuted there. It is not clear whether Pakistan will accept his extradition or under what conditions it would be allowed to continue.
In a statement earlier this month, acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said, “The United States is prepared to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial here.” “We can not permit him to evade justice for his role in the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl.”
It seems certain that the case would test the willingness of the current Biden administration to negotiate with Pakistan, deemed a crucial ally in achieving stability in neighbouring Afghanistan. The U.S. did not have any direct response. Thursday at the Embassy.
Both the US and Pakistani governments were encouraged by the Pearl family to take steps to “correct this injustice.”
“The decision today is a complete travesty of justice and the release of these killers puts journalists and the people of Pakistan at risk everywhere,” the family’s statement said.
The only legal option open now is to call for a trial of the court’s decision to uphold Sheikh’s acquittal, Siddiqi, the Pearl family counsel, said. He said, however, that the analysis will be carried out by the same court which made the decision. “In practical terms,” that means the case in Pakistan is closed, he said.
On Wednesday, after he had denied any involvement for 18 years, the Supreme Court heard Sheikh confess to a minor role in Pearl’s abduction, a dramatic turn of events. The Pearl family lawyer, Siddiqi, had hoped that his prosecution would be advanced. Still, recently, Siddiqi had said winning was an uphill battle.
Sheikh and the other three men ordered released on Thursday were all acquitted by the Sindh High Court in April on the grounds that the testimony of the original prosecution was insufficient. Siddiqi sought to persuade the Supreme Court of Sheikh’s guilt during the appeal of the acquittal on at least one of the three charges he faced, namely the charge of kidnapping, which also carries the death penalty in Pakistan.