Omar Sheikh, a British-born man of Pakistani origin, who was convicted for the abduction and murder of WSJ reporter Daniel Pearl, was acquitted on Thursday. Sheikh was one of the three terrorists released by India after the hijacking of Indian Airlines plane in 1999
Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision this Thursday to allow a man named Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh to walk free has created ripples reaching out as far as the United States. Sheikh, a British-born man of Pakistani origin, was convicted for the 2002 abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl after the former had reportedly admitted to his involvement in the scribe’s kidnapping.
The White House has expressed ‘outrage’ and strong concerns over the decision, calling it an affront to terrorism victims everywhere.
It has asked the Pakistan government to promptly review its legal options or allow the US to extradite Pearl’s murderers and prosecute them on US soil.
The US Secretary of State Tony Blinken has also called up Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Saturday and expressed the need to hold killers and terrorists accountable for their actions.
Sheikh was indicted in the US in 2002 for hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, resulting in the murder of Pearl, as well as the 1994 kidnapping of another US citizen in India, Blinken said in a statement.
What was a tragic case of a journalist’s brutal murder and the West’s confrontation with extremist forces festering in South Asia has now become a hurdle in the US-Pakistan relationship under the presidency of Joe Biden. Here is all you need to know about the case:
Daniel Pearl’s murder
Pearl, South Asia bureau chief of WSJ, had come to South Asia in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US. He was researching for a story about Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan during his deputation in India.
He had been investigating the link between Pakistani militants and Richard Reid, dubbed the “shoe bomber” after his attempt to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes.
Pearl travelled to Pakistan in January 2002 expecting to conduct an interview with a hard-line cleric Sheik Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani. But apparently, it was a trap.
According to the prosecution, Sheikh, posing as a staunch follower of Gilani met Pearl at a hotel in Rawalpindi and then conspired with militants for his abduction on the pretext of getting him the interview at a further meeting in Karachi. However, Sheikh’s lawyers deny he was ever present at the meeting or that a conspiracy was hatched.
What authorities did confirm at the time was that Pearl was abducted in the southern port megacity of Karachi in Sindh province on 23 January 2002. Four days later, various US media organisations received their first emails confirming Pearl’s abduction, accusing him of being a Mossad agent.
Nearly a month later, after a string of ransom demands — varying from fighter jets for Pakistan to release of all Pakistani prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — a graphic video showing his decapitation was given to officials.
Sheikh, a British-born jihadist who once studied at the London School of Economics and had been involved in previous kidnappings of foreigners, was arrested days after Pearl’s abduction.
He was later sentenced to death by hanging after he told a Karachi court that Pearl had already been killed days before the gruesome video of the journalist’s beheading had been released.
The brutality of Pearl’s killing shocked many in 2002, years before the Islamic State group began releasing videos of their militants beheading journalists.
An autopsy report told the gruesome details of the Wall Street Journal reporter’s killing and dismemberment. Pearl’s body was discovered in a shallow grave soon after a video of his beheading was delivered to the US Consulate in Karachi.
Sheikh was convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in Karachi, during which he was kidnapped. Meanwhile, Pearl’s killing was attributed to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and not Sheikh.
The conclusion was reached at by an independent inquiry into the case, called The Pearl Project, which was led by Pearl’s friend and former Wall Street Journal colleague Asra Nomani and a Georgetown University professor.
The Pentagon in 2007 released a transcript in which Mohammed appears to have admitted to killing pearl.
“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl,” the transcript quoted Mohammed as saying.
Mohammed 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 US prison in Guantanamo Bay and has never been charged with the journalist’s death.
Meanwhile, Sheikh had long denied any involvement in Pearl’s death, but the 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. Faisal Siddiqi, the Pearl family lawyer, had expected it would advance his case. Still, Siddiqi had previously said winning was an uphill battle.
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. Yet, at the original trial, all four were charged with the same crimes.
All accused had previously been acquitted in April by the Sindh High Court on the grounds that the initial prosecution’s evidence was insufficient. During the appeal of that acquittal, Siddiqi unsuccessfully tried to convince the Supreme Court of Sheikh’s guilt on at least one of the three charges he faced, specifically the kidnapping charge, which also carries the death penalty in Pakistan. The court is expected to release a detailed explanation for Thursday’s decision in the coming days.
Siddiqi 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.
Omar Sheikh, the British-born terrorist who traded LSE stint for life in prison
Sheikh, the militant who spent close to 19 years behind bars for masterminding Pearl’s abduction, traded privilege and scholarship for a life of jihad, kidnappings, and ultimately a prison cell.
Born in London in 1973 to a prosperous Pakistani garment merchant, Omar was given the best education, including enrolment at a private primary school in London, a stint at Lahore’s prestigious Aitchison College, and a brief tenure at the London School of Economics (LSE).
He abandoned his comfortable Western upbringing after just a year at LSE, reportedly travelling to Bosnia during the brutal Balkans war in the early 1990s, where his jihadist zeal sprouted after coming into contact with Pakistani militants.
The former boxer and arm wrestling enthusiast is believed to have returned to Pakistan to spend several months in a militant training camp and travelled to the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir to fight Indian forces.
In India, he carried out his first kidnapping, abducting an American and three British tourists in 1994. The police captured him in a shootout, initially thinking he was one of the British hostages because of his clipped accent and Western bearing. He was jailed in New Delhi but never charged.
In prison, he met Pakistani jihadist Maulana Masood Azhar, who went on to form the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. India freed Azhar, Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar in 1999 when the hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane demanded his release in exchange for their hostages.
With inputs from agencies
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