Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the release of a Pakistani-British man convicted and later acquitted in the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.
The court also dismissed an appeal of Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh’s acquittal filed by Pearl’s family and the Pakistani government, though U.S. officials said Thursday they were prepared to prosecute Sheikh in the United States.
A minister in the Sindh province where Sheikh is being held said the government had exhausted all options to keep him locked up — an indication that Sheikh could be free within days. The “Supreme Court is the court of last resort,” Murtaza Wahab, Sindh’s law minister, told The Associated Press.
“The Pearl family is in complete shock by the majority decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to acquit and release Ahmed Omer Sheikh and the other accused persons who kidnapped and killed Daniel Pearl,” the Pearl family said in a statement released by their lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi.
The brutality of Pearl’s killing shocked many in 2002, years before the Islamic State group began releasing videos of their militants beheading journalists.
Sheikh was convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, during which he was kidnapped. Pearl had been investigating the link between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, dubbed the “shoe bomber” after his attempt to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes.
Pearl’s body was discovered in a shallow grave soon after a video of his beheading was delivered to the U.S. consulate in Karachi.
Sheikh had been on death row
The Pentagon in 2007 released a transcript in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, said he had killed Pearl.
“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl,” the transcript quoted Mohammed as saying.
Mohammad first disclosed his role while he was held in CIA custody and subjected to waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other forms of torture. He remains in the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay and has never been charged with the journalist’s death.
Sheikh had long denied any involvement in Pearl’s death, but Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday heard that he acknowledged writing a letter in 2019 admitting a minor role — raising hopes for some that he might remain behind bars.
Sheikh has been on death row since his conviction — even after his subsequent acquittal — and is currently being held in a Karachi jail. A three-judge Supreme Court ruled 2 to 1 to uphold Sheikh’s acquittal and ordered him released, according to the Pearl family lawyer.
A lawyer for Sheikh said the court also ordered the release of three other Pakistanis who had been sentenced to life in prison for their part in Pearl’s kidnapping and death.
The three — Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil and Salman Saqib — all played lesser roles, such as providing a laptop or internet access to send pictures of Pearl with a gun to his head, with demands that all prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay be released. Yet at the original trial all four were charged with the same crimes.
“These people should not have been in prison even for one day,” said Mehmood A. Sheikh, who is not related to his client.
Test of U.S.-Pakistan relations
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the decision “an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan” and said Washington was “prepared to prosecute Sheikh in the United States for his horrific crimes.”
In a statement, Blinken said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by the decision to acquit Sheikh and his co-defendants and “any proposed action to release them.” He also noted that Pakistani Attorney General Khalid Javed Khan said he intended to review the decision.
Washington has previously said it would seek Sheikh’s extradition to the United States to be tried there if the acquittal was upheld. It’s not clear whether Pakistan would support his extradition or even under what grounds it could go ahead.
The case seems certain to test the new Biden administration’s skill in dealing with Pakistan, considered a key ally in getting peace in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The Pearl family urged both the U.S. and Pakistani governments to take action to “correct this injustice.”
“Today’s decision is a complete travesty of justice and the release of these killers puts in danger journalists everywhere and the people of Pakistan,” the family’s statement said.
U.S. calls on Pakistan to review legal options
Also Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. was “outraged by the Pakistani Supreme Court decision to affirm the acquittals of those responsible” for Pearl’s slaying and underscored the administration’s commitment to secure justice for his family.
She called on the Pakistani government “to expeditiously review its legal options, including allowing the United States to prosecute Sheikh for the brutal murder of an American citizen and journalist.”
Siddiqi, the Pearl family lawyer, said the only legal avenue available now is to ask for a review of the court’s decision to uphold Sheikh’s acquittal.
However, he said the review would be conducted by the same court that made the decision. “In practical terms,” that means the case is closed in Pakistan, he said.