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Daniel Pearl case: Pakistan courts terrorists yet again

File photo of Daniel Pearl, Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief

The Pakistan Supreme Court’s upholding of the 2020 Sindh High Court verdict acquitting Omar Sheikh for the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 lays bare yet again Pakistan’s reluctance to bring to justice international terrorists.

The Supreme Court was presented with new evidence: a letter handwritten by Sheikh and dated July 25, 2019 where he admitted to ‘minor involvement’ in Pearl’s slaying. The letter had raised hopes that it would result in the apex court reversing the Sindh High Court ruling.

But that did not happen. Pakistan’s top court seems to have ignored the evidence.

Pearl was the Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief. In January 2002, he was working on a story about al-Qaeda-linked terror groups in Pakistan, when he was abducted in Karachi and subsequently beheaded. In July that year, a special anti-terrorism court convicted Sheikh for Pearl’s abduction and murder, and awarded him the death penalty. Three accomplices, Fahad Nasim Ahmed, Sheikh Muhammad Adil, and Syed Salman Saqib were given life sentences. The four appealed against the verdict.

In April 2020, the Sindh High Court acquitted Sheikh of murdering Pearl. It pointed to conflicting testimony at the original trial. The prosecution had brought “no evidence” to link him to Pearl’s murder, it said. It convicted Sheikh on the lesser charge of abducting Pearl, however, and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Since he has been in custody since 2002, the sentence was treated as served.

Pakistan’s apex court has now upheld this verdict. It has ordered that he and his three accomplices be freed.

The Sindh government has filed a review petition against the Supreme Court ruling.

A British citizen of Pakistani origin, Sheikh has a strong record of terrorism. He was arrested in India in 1994 for abduction of western tourists. Five years later, India freed three terrorists in exchange for the release of passengers taken hostage in the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814. Sheikh was among them. He returned to Pakistan and resumed his terrorist activities. 

Sheikh is said to have played an important role in financing the 9/11 terror attacks. But it was his arrest in connection with Pearl’s abduction and murder that catapulted his stature in jihadist circles.

Judicial trials of Pakistan-based terrorists especially those of people like Sheikh, who enjoy the support of the Pakistani deep state and of terrorists, are mired in murkiness. Prosecutors come under immense pressure from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and terrorists but also from ministers to go easy on the accused.

Consequently, investigations are shoddily done and important evidence not presented before the court. Often judges are complicit with the result that some evidence is not allowed to be presented of if presented, disregarded. As a result, terrorist convictions are rare and many walk free.

Sheikh’s acquittal has evoked outrage in India and the United States. New Delhi has described the apex court verdict as a “travesty of justice.” The US State Department has said that it is “deeply concerned” over Sheikh’s acquittal and has announced that it is “prepared to prosecute Sheikh” in US courts for “his horrific crimes against an American citizen.”

How serious is the US government with regard to prosecuting Sheikh. Will it be willing to press Islamabad to hand him over? Is this a priority for the US at a time when the Joe Biden administration has more important issues to address vis-à-vis Pakistan?

Importantly, will Pakistan hand Sheikh over to the Americans? It is unlikely to. For one, the two countries do not have an extradition treaty. But this isn’t the main obstacle in the way. After all, Pakistan has handed over terrorists to the US in the past as part of larger deals.

The big obstacle in the way of Pakistan handing over Sheikh to the Americans is that it will not want the full extent of Sheikh’s ties with the ISI and Pakistan’s establishment to be revealed to the US.

Back in 2002, the Americans reportedly wanted to try Sheikh for his role in Pearl’s murder in American courts. The Pakistanis refused. There is little to suggest that Pakistan’s position in this matter would have changed in the years since.

Sheikh may have been in jail for 19 years now but that does not mean he has become less dangerous or is less powerful. Even in jail, he has led a comfortable life, one that is reserved for highly connected convicts.

Sheikh masterminded a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi plot to assassinate President Parvez Musharraf in 2008.

Soon after the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, he called Pakistan’s then President Asif Zardari and Chief of Army Staff, Gen Ashfaq Kayani and posing as India’s then Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee threatened them. At a time when India-Pakistan relations were at an all-time high, Sheikh’s threatening hoax calls could have ignited war between the two countries.

Even from the confines of a high-security prison cell Sheikh displayed capacity to engineer terrorist acts, even put India and Pakistan on the brink of war. That danger will rise manifold should he walk free.

(Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a political and security analyst based in Bengaluru. Her articles on Asian security issues appear in The Diplomat, China Brief and Militant Leadership Monitor. She can be contacted at [email protected])