New Delhi: A Pakistan court Thursday overturned the death sentence of British-born terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was convicted for the 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
Sheikh’s sentence was reduced to seven years in jail, while three others convicted in the case were acquitted.
Pearl, who was the South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was in Karachi to research Islamist military activity in relation to the 9/11 attacks when he was kidnapped and later beheaded by four terrorists. The prime accused was the British-born Sheikh.
The Sindh High Court’s judgment Thursday caps a lengthy and controversial trial period that went through several courts. One of them — a special anti-terror court — put Sheikh on death row in July 2002 after he was found guilty. He had been in jail for 18 years before the Sindh court ruled that he was guilty only of kidnapping, reducing his life sentence to seven years.
Sheikh’s lawyer said he would likely walk free since his seven-year sentence could be counted in the time served, unless the government challenges the court’s order. The other three men in the case — Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil, and Salman Saqib — will also walk free since their life sentences were overturned.
“Justice has been done to my clients,” said Khwaja Naveed, a lawyer representing the four men.
Thursday’s verdict comes more than a month after Paris-based Financial Action Task Force warned Pakistan that stern action will be taken against it if the country fails to check the flow of money to terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) among others.
The FATF, which supervises effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing, last year placed Pakistan on its ‘Grey List’ of countries for failure to curb funnelling of funds to terror groups like LeT and JeM.
Pearl had been staying in Karachi to research Pakistani militancy in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon.
He was kidnapped on 23 January 2002 while on his way to interview a prominent Islamist leader. Prosecutors in the case have said Pearl was lured into the meeting by Sheikh.
The abductors called themselves the ‘The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty’, and wrote emails to the US government demanding the release of Pakistani nationals lodged in American jails. They also sent photos of Pearl in chains with a gun to his head, and threatened to take the journalist’s life if their demands were not met.
US and British intelligence forces scrambled to find Pearl’s captors, but it was too late before they finally traced his kidnapping to Sheikh. Four weeks after his abduction, a video of Pearl’s grisly murder emerged.
A fast-track anti-terror court sentenced Sheikh to death and the three others to life in the case. Seven others who were accused were reportedly never arrested.
Sheikh’s role in Pearl’s beheading has been a matter of controversy. In 2011, a group of investigators from the US claimed he had been wrongly convicted of murder. Their report, however, maintained that Sheikh was involved in the kidnapping.
In 2005, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a blog saying “questions linger about who ordered the murder and what precisely happened”, and added that the trial process was marred by Sheikh’s alleged links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI).
According to a report in The Express Tribune, in 2014, an anti-terrorism court had acquitted Qari Hashim, a co-accused in the case due to a lack of evidence. The same year, Sheikh allegedly attempted suicide in his prison cell by hanging himself with a cloth from the ventilator.
In January 2011, a report released by the Pearl Project at Georgetown University following an investigation into his death revealed that the wrong men were convicted for Pearl’s murder.
In February 2016, the Pakistan Army arrested more than 100 militants and foiled a jailbreak attempt by al-Qaeda terrorists to free Sheikh and other leaders of the terror group.
Sheikh grew up in London and was educated in the London School of Economics before dropping out to travel to Bosnia on an Islamist aid mission. He then joined a militant training camp in Afghanistan.
In 1994, he was involved in the abduction of four foreign tourists in India, and was imprisoned here till 1999, when he was provided safe passage into Afghanistan with the support of Taliban in exchange for passengers aboard the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814.
He was 28 when he was accused of beheading Daniel Pearl.
(With PTI inputs)