Prime accused in Daniel Pearl murder case shifted to Lahore amid 'tight security'

British Pakistani Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh arrives at a court in Karachi, Pakistan, on March 29, 2002. (AP/File)
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Updated 08 April 2021

Prime accused in Daniel Pearl murder case shifted to Lahore amid 'tight security'

  • On assignment for Wall Street Journal, Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi and later beheaded in 2002
  • Sheikh, the main suspect in 2002 kidnapping and murder, was acquitted by a panel of three Pakistani judges

KARACHI: Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the prime accused in the kidnapping and murder of American Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was shifted from Karachi to Lahore on Thursday, a jail official and a family member of a co-accused in the case said. 

On assignment for the Wall Street Journal in the months after Al-Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the United States, Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi and later beheaded. The militants videoed his execution.

Sheikh, who was the main suspect in the 2002 kidnapping and murder, was acquitted by a panel of three Pakistani judges.

Sheikh’s transfer to Lahore was first confirmed to Arab News by Sheikh Aslam, the brother of a co-accused in the case, who was at Karachi Central Jail for a routine meeting with his sibling on Thursday afternoon.
 
“Omar was taken away from his room to the airport amid tight security,” he said. “It was about 5pm when security personnel came in. Omar was already prepared for his journey to Lahore.”

The development was also confirmed by a jail official who requested anonymity to Arab News.

“He [Sheikh] has been finally taken out of Karachi,” he said. 

Aslam said Sheikh was already told about being moved to Lahore yesterday, Wednesday, though “the security personnel came today and told him they were taking him to Lahore.”

Last month, Pakistan’s apex court allowed Sheikh’s transfer from Karachi to Lahore where his family resides.

Punjab Additional Advocate General Faisal Chaudhry informed the court that Sheikh would be kept in the same colony where employees of the Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail lived.

The Supreme Court on January 30 overturned Sheikh’s death sentence and ordered the authorities to move him from his death cell to a state rest house.

The court gave the order while hearing an appeal filed by the provincial administration of Sindh, requesting it to review its decision in December to free Sheikh and three others who were convicted of Pearl’s 2002 beheading.

Both appeals were rejected by a three-member bench that ordered Sheikh’s release.

On February 2, the Sindh government said in a directive that the accused would be moved to a new accommodation outside the main jail building, though still within the prison facility.

The provincial administration’s order, a copy of which is available with Arab News, required that Sheikh and his co-accused should not get access to the Internet or any communication device.

The directive also instructed the province’s prison chief to ensure the safety of prisoners which was to be jointly provided by the police and rangers.

Addressing a group of journalists in Washington in February this year, a spokesperson for the US Department of State said that the Biden administration was deeply concerned about the developments related to people who were thought to be involved in the kidnapping and murder of the American journalist.

“We are alarmed by the recent order to move Sheikh and his co-conspirators from prison,” he said.

Aslam also told Arab News that Sheikh’s counsel had submitted an application, requesting the additional chief secretary of Punjab to allow his client to meet his family in Lahore on Friday.


Pakistan says ‘happy to host’ SAARC summit subject to conditions

Updated 52 min 2 sec ago

Pakistan says ‘happy to host’ SAARC summit subject to conditions

  • Foreign Office spokesperson says onus now on India to create environment for Kashmir oriented talks
  • Says fate of this year’s summit ‘hangs in balance’

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan foreign office on Friday said it was ‘happy to host’ Indian and other regional leaders at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) scheduled for October, but only if ‘artificial obstacles’ were removed, in a veiled reference to New Delhi.
The original 19th SAARC summit was to be held in Islamabad in 2016, but was boycotted by Indian PM Narendra Modi in the wake of the Uri militant attacks. Following this, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka also pulled out, which led to the regional summit’s postponement.
“Pakistan considers SAARC an important organization for enhancing regional cooperation. As we have ascertained earlier, whenever artificial obstacles created in the way of SAARC summit are removed, we will be happy to host,” Foreign Office spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhry told a press briefing on Friday.
He further said the onus was now on India to create a conducive environment for result-oriented talks between the two countries.
“We believe that durable peace, security and development in the region hinge on peaceful resolution of the long-standing Jammu and Kashmir dispute,” the spokesman said.
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, and the disputed Himalayan region has been the focus of an increased flare-up between the two countries since 2019.
On Aug. 5, 2019, Modi’s government took away Jammu & Kashmir state’s special privileges, provoking anger in the region and especially in neighboring Pakistan.
Jammu & Kashmir was until then the only Muslim-majority state in mainly Hindu India.
“The spirit of the SAARC Charter is violated when a member state casts the shadow of its bilateral problems on the multilateral forum for regional cooperation,” Pakistan had said in 2016 in response to India’s pull-out from the summit.
For now, the FO spokesman said, the fate of this year’s SAARC summit ‘hangs in the balance.’


Pakistan’s Hazara women strike back with martial arts

Updated 50 min 33 sec ago

Pakistan’s Hazara women strike back with martial arts

  • In Quetta’s two largest martial arts academies, a majority of students are young Hazara women
  • Say karate makes them feel safe and confident amid the violence

Hundreds of Pakistani Hazara women are learning how to deliver side kicks and elbow blows as martial arts booms within the marginalized community.

Hazaras, who are mainly Shia Muslims, have faced decades of sectarian violence in the southwestern city of Quetta, living in two separate enclaves cordoned off by checkpoints and armed guards to protect them.

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, students of the Hazara community take part in a martial arts training class at the Kazmi International Wushu Academy, in Quetta. (AFP)

Women must also contend with routine harassment from men, with groping commonplace in crowded markets or public transport.

“We can’t stop bomb blasts with karate, but with self-defense, I have learnt to feel confident,” 20-year-old Nargis Batool told AFP.

“Everyone here knows that I am going to the club. Nobody dares say anything to me while I am out.”

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, female students of the Hazara community warm-up before a martial arts training class at the Kazmi International Wushu Academy, in Quetta. (AFP)

Up to 4,000 people are attending regular classes in more than 25 clubs in Balochistan province, of which Quetta is the capital, according to Ishaq Ali, head of the Balochistan Wushu Kung Fu Association, which oversees the sport.

The city’s two largest academies, which train around 250 people each, told AFP the majority of their students were young Hazara women.

Many of them go on to earn money from the sport, taking part in frequent competitions.

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, martial arts student Fatima Batool of the Hazara community practices Shaolin Kung Fu during a self-defence martial arts training class, on a mountain on the outskirts of Quetta. (AFP)

It is still unusual for women to play sport in deeply conservative Pakistan where families often forbid it, but martial arts teacher Fida Hussain Kazmi says exceptions are being made.

“In general, women cannot exercise in our society... but for the sake of self-defense and her family, they are being allowed.”

The uptake is also credited to national champions Nargis Hazara and Kulsoom Hazara, who have won medals in international competitions.

In this picture taken on January 31, 2021, students of the Hazara community take part in a martial arts training class at the Kazmi International Wushu Academy, in Quetta. (AFP)

Kazmi says he has trained hundreds of women over the years, after learning the sport from a Chinese master in the eastern city of Lahore.

The 41-year-old offers two hours of training six days a week for 500 rupees ($3) but gives free classes to women who have lost a relative to militant violence.

“The Hazara community is facing many problems... but with karate we can begin to feel safe,” said 18-year-old student Syeda Qubra, whose brother was killed in a bomb blast in 2013.


Some Pakistani journalists find breathing room on YouTube as censorship grows

Updated 10 April 2021

Some Pakistani journalists find breathing room on YouTube as censorship grows

  • Information minister Shibli Faraz says no censorship in Pakistan, press enjoys “complete independence and freedom to report” 
  • In digital age, growing number of Pakistani journalists turning to Internet, particularly YouTube, to tap into platform’s ever-growing audiences

LAHORE: The last news channel renowned Pakistani journalist and TV anchor Najam Sethi worked for received several warnings from the country’s electronic media regulatory authority over the contents of his show, including one in April 2019 saying the show would be banned and the channel’s license revoked if Sethi did not apologize to Prime Minister Imran Khan for spreading “false news” about him. 

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority did not specify what news it had found to be false but said Sethi was being served the notice over a complaint filed with PEMRA council of complaints by Prime Minister Imran Khan. 

After Channel 24 was taken off air at least four times between 2019-20, Sethi knew it was time to move his talk show, Sethi Se Sawal, to YouTube where he now has over 250,000 subscribers. 

Explaining why he switched over to YouTube, Sethi told Arab News in a phone interview: “After various TV channels were restrained from hiring me in 2019 because of pressure from the government or establishment.” 

“YouTube is a breath of fresh air to avoid censorship,” he added. 

Indeed, Sethi is among a growing number of Pakistani journalists who have turned to the Internet, particularly to YouTube channels, amid what editors and reporters call a “widening” crackdown on the media. 

Journalists’ complaints range from direct edicts to editors and producers not to air opposition voices or publish news critical of the government or the military; pulling TV stations from transmission or newspapers from circulation; and targeting the advertising revenue of dissenting media. In 2018 alone, over 3,000 journalists and media workers were laid off. Thousands more have been dismissed since, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ).

Muhammad Usman, Director News at Neo News, a mainstream TV channel, said government advertisements to news channels had decreased by more than 50 percent since the government of Khan came into power in 2018. Two other journalists, part of senior management at top-tier news channels, also confirmed this. 

“For mainstream channels a big chunk of their revenue came from government ads,” Usman told Arab News. “Due to cuts of ad revenue, there were layoffs … In the coming days things will only get worse.”

In 2019, responding to criticism over the government reducing ad revenue for the media, then Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad Hussain said Pakistani media houses needed to revamp their revenue models to reduce reliance on government advertising. 

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority did not reply to text messages seeking comment for this story. But Information Minister Shibli Faraz denied there was censorship in Pakistan. 

“There is no concept of media censorship in the country, whatsoever,” he told Arab News. “Media in Pakistan enjoys complete independence and freedom to report, be it politics, economy or any other sphere.” 

Journalists like Matiullah Jan disagree. 

On June 4, 2018, then Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor, held a press conference and showed a graphic linking a number of prominent journalists to an alleged troll account on Twitter through which he said they had shared anti-state and anti-army propaganda. The journalists featured on the graphic included Jan, then an anchor with broadcaster Waqt News. 

In October that year, Jan left his job amid speculation he was forced to resign over his critical views of the military. The Pakistan army vehemently denies it censors news outlets. 

Shut out from the country’s mainstream media, Jan started a YouTube channel. 

“The reason I started the channel was that at the time I had left Waqt TV; I could not write in any publication,” Jan told Arab News. “There was no job for me.” 

“What we can say on our YouTube channels would be difficult for anyone to say on a TV channel today,” he said. “In this crisis of censorship, YouTube is like a ventilator for us journalists.” 

But censorship is not the only factor pushing journalists toward platforms like YouTube; in the age of digital media, many have launched YouTube channels to tap into the platform’s ever-growing audiences. 

A 2019 profiling study by YouTube showed 73% of Pakistanis who were online watched YouTube every month and 78% of YouTube users in Pakistan said the platform was their first stop when looking for any kind of video. ‘News’ is among the top eight categories of content Pakistanis watch on YouTube, the study said. 

Journalist Imran Shafqat said YouTube had become a viable option for many Pakistani journalists, especially in an environment of censorship, because it gave them access to large audiences. 

That’s why, Shafqat said, he had rented out a small studio in Lahore and started making YouTube videos after the news channel he worked for folded due to financial constraints in 2019. 

“I have no other job right now,” he said. “I am making more money on YouTube than I ever did at any media channel.”

But authorities are beginning to keep a close eye on social media content as well now, journalists say, increasingly using laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) to crack down on those who had gone online with criticism of the government and the military. 

Sethi also said he had received numerous calls about the content of his YouTube channel, with authorities warning him to “be careful, please.” 

“To which I reply: ‘Sir, when we were talking on mainstream media you pushed us here [to YouTube]. This is not how it will work now.’” 


Pakistan says bodies found of 16 miners missing since 2011

Updated 09 April 2021

Pakistan says bodies found of 16 miners missing since 2011

  • Forensic experts carried out the exhumations after a villager in Kohat district alerted them to what he assumed was a burial site
  • Authorities said police would continue investigating the deaths and try to determine who killed the miners

PESHAWAR: Pakistani police said they found a mass grave on Friday containing the bodies of 16 coal miners who went missing in the country's northwest a decade ago and were believed to be abducted by militants.
The miners went missing in 2011 while on their way to work at a mine in the district of Kohat, about 75 kilometers (45 miles) south of Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan.
No one had claimed to have abducted the miners, but militant groups were active in the area at the time.
Forensic experts carried out the exhumations after a villager in the remote mountainous area alerted them to what he assumed was a burial site, said police official Aleem Khan.
Family members of the victims were able to identify the bodies from the clothes and remains, Khan said, and the remains were handed over to the families for burial. The miners were from the town of Shangla in Swat Valley.
Khan said police would continue investigating the deaths to try to determine who killed the miners.
Although attacks on miners and other laborers are common in the southwestern Balochistan province, such violence is rare elsewhere in Pakistan.
Earlier this year in Balochistan, militants from the Islamic State group abducted and killed 11 coal miners, members of Pakistan's minority Shiites.


Pakistan's current $16 billion forex reserves will make import payments ‘easy’ — experts

Updated 28 min 57 sec ago

Pakistan's current $16 billion forex reserves will make import payments ‘easy’ — experts

  • The country's foreign currency reserves increased to $22.18 billion after four years, following significant Eurobond inflows
  • The situation has not done much for the national currency that may come under pressure in the long term due to debt servicing

KARACHI: Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves have reached $22.18 billion, with more than $16 billion held by the central bank, after a span of four years, as the country raised $2.5 billion by issuing Eurobonds, said an official statement released on Thursday.

"The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has received the proceeds of government's $2.5 billion Eurobond issuance in its account," said the statement circulated on Thursday night. "As a result, SBP's foreign exchange reserves closed above $16 billion, their highest level since July 2017."

According to economic analysts, the inflows have brought the government in a more comfortable position to pay for its imports, including any COVID-19 vaccines.

"The inflow of $2.5 billion has raised the cushion of the State Bank and it will also improve the country's current account position," Dr. Abid Qaiyum Suleri, member of the government's Economic Advisory Council (EAC), told Arab News on Friday.

"The inflows have made it easy for the country to make payments for imports of COVID-19 vaccine, wheat or sugar due to an improved reserves position," he continued. "This is also the right time to tap international market."

Some economists also suggested that Pakistan should utilize the Eurobond proceeds to pay off some of its debts.

"The country has arranged the liquidity to pay off previous external debts because time to make these payments is due and the prices of oil are also increasing with the ease of lockdown," Dr. Vaqar Ahmed, joint executive director at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), said.

"For the payment of external debts and oil imports the Eurobond proceeds can be utilized," he added.

The inflows did not generate any major fluctuations in the currency and interbank markets as the rupee only appreciated 0.05 percent to close at Rs152.94 against the greenback on Friday.

"Going forward the rupee can come under pressure due to debt servicing since the country is availing G20 debt relief at present," Samiullah Tariq, head of research at the Pakistan-Kuwait Investment, told Arab News. "Only strong and enduring inflows can resist the fall of rupee. Otherwise, we expect three to four percent depreciation in the long run."

Despite its limited impact on the national currency, an official statement announced that the country had returned to the international market for the first time by issuing securities since 2017.

"Pakistan has entered the international capital market after a gap of over three years by successfully raising $2.5 billion through a multi-tranche transaction of 5, 10 and 30-year Eurobonds," the finance ministry said on Thursday.

"The transaction generated great interest as leading global investors from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the US participated in the global investor calls and the order book," it added.

This is for the first time that Pakistan has adopted a program-based approach with registration of Global Medium-Term Note program.

"The program will allow Pakistan to tap the market at short notice," the ministry continued in its statement. "The government intends to make full use of this program and become a regular issuer in the International Capital Markets."