In Daniel Pearl case, militant’s acquittal does not bode well for Pakistan
A high court verdict commuting the death sentence of Omer Saeed Sheikh, the prime accused in American journalist Daniel Pearl’s abduction and murder case, has raised questions about Pakistan’s judicial system. His release could reinforce skepticism over Pakistan’s failure to convict hardcore terrorists.
Predictably, the United States reacted strongly over the court’s decision. In a strongly worded message, the top US diplomat for South Asia, Alice Wells said those responsible for Pearl’s heinous murder must face the “full measure of justice.”
Pakistan’s home minister also announced there would be an appeal against the overturning of Sheikh’s death sentence in the Supreme Court, and he has been placed in a three month detention. But it may take years for the apex court to decide the appeal.
On Thursday, a Sindh high court gave the ruling on Sheikh’s appeal against his conviction by an anti-terrorism court some eighteen years ago, and converted his sentence to seven year imprisonment on kidnapping charges while acquitting him for murder.
Intriguingly, it has taken the court close to two decades to dispose off the appeal in one of the world’s most high profile terrorism cases. Several judges were changed during that period. There has also been an instance where the judge has refused to hear the case. The delay was also caused by a lack of interest on the part of the prosecution.
Sheikh’s acquittal on the murder charge is seen as a failure of the prosecution. It seems that the government has gone into appeal based on US pressure, but it is not clear whether the prosecution will take the case more seriously this time. It will also be a test case for the government.
The British national of Pakistani origin, Omar Sheikh, had long been associated with militant groups. The son of a wealthy Pakistani businessman who had migrated to Britain for a better economic future, he fit the profile of a classic politically aware militant.
Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, vanished in January 2002 while researching a story on terrorism. The journalist reportedly came into contact with Sheikh a few days earlier, who promised to help him in his investigation. In May, police found Pearl’s body buried in a nursery on the outskirts of Karachi.
Intriguingly, it has taken the court close to two decades to dispose off the appeal in one of the world’s most high profile terrorism cases. Several judges were changed during that period. There has also been an instance where the judge has refused to hear the case.
Pearl’s kidnapping was conceived and organized by Sheikh who later handed over the journalist to Al Qaeda, with Pearl reportedly killed by Khalid Sheikh Muhammad-- the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Pearl’s kidnapping was the first violent response of the Al Qaeda linked Pakistani militant groups to the American attack on Afghanistan.
His passage to militancy started in 1992 when he went to Bosnia to help Muslims who suffered persecution following the break up of former Yugoslavia. After his return to London, he dropped out of the London School of Economics and headed to a training camp in Afghanistan where he established links with Harkat ul Mujahideen (HuM), an Al Qaeda affiliated Pakistani based militant group.
It was in July 1994 that Omar Sheikh went to Delhi with a mandate to kidnap a group of western tourists. Sheikh succeeded in kidnapping one American and three British nationals from a hotel in New Delhi but was captured after a shoot-out in which one policeman was killed.
Indian authorities freed him in December 2000 in exchange for the passengers of an Indian Airlines plane hijacked during a flight from Katmandu and taken to Kandahar during Taliban rule. Sheikh apparently never went back to Britain after his release in Kandahar and reportedly established links with Al Qaeda. Pakistani intelligence agencies believed he had traveled to Afghanistan several times, and was believed to have met with bin Laden during his last trip to Afghanistan at the time of the US invasion.
Sheikh refused to defend himself in his trial before an anti-terrorism court, saying: “It was a waste of time,” and warned of a decisive war “between Islam and the infidels.” He appeared defiant as the judge pronounced him guilty of conspiring in Pearl’s kidnapping and sentenced him to death.
The militants for whom Sheikh had become a symbol of Jihad will most certainly be celebrating his acquittal.
– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.