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Pakistan wants Biden to see from new lens. But it made a mess in Daniel Pearl’s case

The case against alleged murderers of Daniel Pearl was heard by a judge who is steeped in suspicion of the West. He doesn’t believe that 9/11 happened.

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Social media watchers in Pakistan were quick to spot the difference in the tone of the new US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken when he had his first conversation with Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers. One of the immediate reasons for this visible difference in approach is slain journalist Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

While the warmth in Blinken’s conversation with India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was unmissable, with Shah Mahmood Qureshi the US Secretary of State cut to the chase in pointing out the Joe Biden administration’s two early priorities – Afghanistan and the legal case of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the prime accused in Pearl’s murder.

Also read: Omar Sheikh was let go because someone in Pakistan wanted him freed, like mentor Masood Azhar

Pakistan-US and the reset button

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special assistant on national security, Mooed Yusuf — who can be safely considered the voice of the security establishment at large — is very conscious of the new turn in relations of the US with South Asia. With India, the Biden administration wants to go beyond just the defence and security-oriented relationship. This means New Delhi will also face tough questions in the coming years. However, referring to Pakistan, Yusuf recently spoke to an American audience, almost a week before the Qureshi-Blinken call, where he advocated a reset in the US-Pakistan relations.

The basic message, that sounded like an extension of the Bajwa doctrine, was for the US to not look at Pakistan in purely transactional and security terms, not use the Afghanistan and terrorism lens, and stop insisting on ‘doing more’. Mooed Yusuf’s claim is: Under Imran Khan, Pakistan is a new country that prefers economic growth over security, eager to develop trade relations towards the East (only if it was not for India), and has not put all its eggs in China’s basket.

What seems to have been erased from the special assistant’s memory is that Pakistan, under the last Nawaz Sharif government, had tried to achieve the paradigm shift by making efforts to expand trade with India as well as establish problematic economic ties with Beijing. Sharif’s efforts to look East were brutally scuttled by the covert political plan that brought Khan to power.

The other problem that Moeed Yusuf or others like him may confront is not in their ability to articulate Islamabad’s demands but sitting on top of a system that suffers from a gap between plan and action, something that would make a reset in relations with the US or any country difficult. For instance, the State institutions and the Khan government have landed themselves in a pickle — dealing with the case of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and his three accomplices, who were involved in Daniel Pearl’s killing and have been set free by the Supreme Court due to lack of credible evidence.

The SC’s latest order to keep Sheikh in partial custody by shifting him to a government rest house is the pickle that Pakistan has landed itself in: the higher courts will now have to manage a problem on the State’s behalf. The case is too weak for the courts to keep Sheikh in prison but the State cannot afford to let him go. Since many of those who investigated the case have retired, it would be difficult to start a fresh trial.

Also read: In declassified US’ secret Indo-Pacific strategy, India is central, Pakistan has fallen out

The charade of a trial

Notwithstanding the fact that many in Islamabad consider themselves indispensable for Washington in sorting out affairs in Afghanistan, accompanied by a total lack of realisation that the Pearl case has and will contribute to Pakistan’s negative image in the US, the case took a particular direction due to a combination of the State’s inefficiency and collusion. While those making foreign policy watched the political situation in the US evolve, no interest was taken in changing the direction of the case once the Sindh High Court (SHC) acquitted Sheikh and his three accomplices in April 2020.

The lawyers and journalists who were part of the hearing during the appeal process say the case was lost because of a combination of reasons — lack of cooperation of the intelligence agencies in bringing new evidence, an inefficient prosecution that fought a case that was weak from the start, and total confusion in the court because at the appeal stage because there were two different strategies adopted by the prosecutors.

Interestingly, despite the Supreme Court asking for evidence to prove Sheikh’s involvement in the 2008 hoax call incident, the intelligence was not forthcoming. It was alleged that Sheikh had called India’s then Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, impersonating as Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and vice versa — an incident that had added to the tensions between the two neighbours after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.

In 2008, it was mainly the ISI that had the capacity to collect data on telephone calls. The civilian Intelligence Bureau got this capability much later — which sources claim, has now been taken over by the ISI — under the previous Nawaz Sharif government. In any case, the Imran Khan government has placed all intelligence under military command. No one seems to have even collected data from the presidency regarding that call.

Such lack of cooperation strengthened the hand of the accused in a case that was already weak.

Neither the defence counsel nor the prosecution ever used Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s admission about killing Daniel Pearl. The acquittal came also because there were major gaps in evidence. The initial case was quickly built up with the understanding that Omar Saeed Sheikh would be kept in prison forever or until he is forgotten. Incidentally, for many years, there wasn’t any pressure even from the US that did not charge Khalid Sheikh Mohammad for Daniel Pearl’s murder or follow up with Pakistan. However, the case came back into focus after former Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa ordered the courts to clear the backlog. The Daniel Pearl case being one of the oldest criminal cases was reopened and pursued by a prosecution team in Sindh that was highly incompetent and inefficient.

Sources attending the case hearings claim that the prosecution lawyer was not even aware that Pearl had been murdered and his body found later. The team was unable to present any cogent argument to explain the gaps —  Sheikh’s arrest while loitering around Karachi airport (when he was actually brought from Lahore where he had surrendered before then home secretary Ejaz Shah), a weak witness for Sheikh’s identification. Then the fact that the laptop, recovered from the co-accused Fahad Naseem and which was used to send the ransom note along with Pearl’s photo under detention, was examined by the Americans even before the police could lay its hands on it made it a tampered piece of evidence. The case was prepared from the beginning like an ordinary murder case, reflecting inefficiency of those in charge of the police, or possibly because someone was sympathetic to Sheikh.

The overall presentation of the case and the fact that there were two prosecution teams in the Supreme Court — one fighting to prove the murder charge and the other trying to establish Sheikh’s role in Pearl’s kidnapping — created a lot of confusion. In the end, the bench took the easy way out, especially when it was headed by a judge that sources claim is steeped in suspicion of the West. It is said that the judge is one of those who do not believe that 9/11 happened or that Osama bin Laden was killed during an American military operation in Abbottabad.

Also read: What the guitar-playing new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken means for India

Managing the case…or reputation?

The Imran Khan government now seems to be struggling to manage the case and get a different verdict — by expanding the bench, by manipulating the higher courts. However, it needs to be known as to why the intelligence agencies were unwilling to come forward and solve a case that could become a big problem for Pakistan? There are numerous cases — of human rights activist Idrees Khattak and of Professor Muhammad Ismail, father of the Pushtun human rights activist Gulalai Ismail — in which the courts have deferred to the military’s will. These examples, in comparison, indicate that the prosecution’s inefficiency in one case versus the other is deliberate — to suit the goals of State institutions that are above accountability.

This, indeed, is a test case for Pakistan and its foreign policy. Will the SAPM (national security) complain about bias in Washington or show capacity to reset the system at home and minimise gaps between plans and action? It’s a question worth asking. Whether this will be possible under a hybrid regime? That’s surely tough to answer.

Ayesha Siddiqa @iamthedrifter is research associate at SOAS, London, and author of ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’. Views are personal.

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  1. This lady author has the gift of viewing everything from her master’s lense…she is more indians than Indians, and more american than american. Non objective and biased analysis to please those who are a source of pleasure for the old lady. Disgusting!!

  2. Many communities all over the world are victims of the state intolerance in different forms, be it racial, religious or a combinations of both. But only one community gets radicalised and attempts to reach their objective by killing others and terrorising the innocents.

  3. Pakistani judiciary cannot punish a jihadist for killing a Jew or a Hindu. It would be blasphemy.

    The concept of non believers and infidels are to be killed and any one who kills non believers and infidels opens a path to himself for HEAVEN is ingrained in every pakistani.

    More than 2000 HINDU woman are raped and forcefully converted and men enslaved in pakistan.

    Zaki ur Rahman who MURDERED hundreds of HINDUS in mumbai later fathered a child while in jail.

    Nothing’s going change that mindset.

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