The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Thursday freed Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the primary suspect in the abduction and on-camera beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.
The Pearl family issued a statement saying it was in “complete shock” over the decision.
Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan, in January 2002 while reporting on Islamic extremism in the wake of 9/11 and the arrest of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. A video of his savage beheading by the terrorists who kidnapped him began circulating online a month after he vanished. Pearl was 38 years old at the time of his death.
“His murder is an act of barbarism that makes a mockery of everything Danny’s kidnappers claimed to believe in. They claimed to be Pakistani nationalists, but their actions must surely bring shame to all true Pakistani patriots,” said Pearl’s employer, the Wall Street Journal, when his death was confirmed.
The group that released the murder tape called itself “The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty.” Before murdering their hostage, they published photos of Pearl in chains and made various demands of the United States, including the release of Pakistanis detained by the U.S. as terrorism suspects and the delivery of some F-16 fighter jets that were bought by Pakistan in the 1980s but held back after the U.S. imposed sanctions against Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
The video was focused on Pearl’s face and depicted him talking to his mostly unseen captors before they took a knife to his throat. The complete film was viewed several times during the Pakistani trial of four men arrested for the murder. Their lawyer said it was “very weak evidence” and suggested the video might have been faked because “when the head was cut off the body, the victim did not even move his legs.”
Despite this stellar legal representation, three of the four suspects were sentenced to life in prison, while alleged ringleader Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was sentenced to death. Sheikh was said to have been the one who lured Pearl to the meeting at which the terrorist gang abducted him.
Sheikh’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison last year. A Pakistani court ruled in April 2020 that the four convicts had “suffered irreparable harm and extreme prejudice” and acquitted them.
The Pearl family and Pakistani officials filed an appeal to the country’s Supreme Court, which on Thursday ruled against their appeal, denied their request to reinstate Sheikh’s death sentence, and set all four defendants free. It will reportedly take “several days” to process their release from prison.
The BBC explained Thursday why the lower court acquitted Shiekh and the other suspects, even though multiple eyewitnesses placed him at the hotel where Pearl was kidnapped:
It’s widely acknowledged that Sheikh first handed himself over to Pakistan’s powerful intelligence services. However, police and prosecutors attempted to gloss over that, and instead, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, claimed he had been arrested a week later, wandering around Karachi airport.
What’s more, evidence began to emerge that Sheikh had not physically carried out the murder himself. Instead, it’s now thought a senior al-Qaeda operative currently in Guantanamo Bay, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (no relation), was responsible. The Pakistani authorities, however, deliberately discounted testimony suggesting that was the case.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, two former leading figures in the investigation told the BBC of their frustration at how it had been handled. One said the decision to try and brush over discrepancies in the timeline, and ignore evidence suggesting Sheikh was not present at the time of the murder, undermined the rest of the case, even though they believed it was clear Sheikh had orchestrated the abduction.
The Associated Press noted that while Sheikh long denied any part in Pearl’s murder, he admitted playing a “minor role” in the abduction in a letter he wrote in 2019. The other three defendants also ostensibly played “lesser roles” such as helping to post the ransom photos of Pearl, and the demands of his kidnappers, online.
Sheikh’s incriminating letter claimed Pearl was actually murdered by another Pakistani militant named Atta-ur-Rehman, who has been executed on unrelated terrorism charges.
Sheikh’s lawyer insisted “these people should not have been in prison for even one day” and said it would be a “mockery of justice” if the Pakistani government does not release them immediately. He also claimed Sheikh wrote his incriminating letter under duress.
The Pakistani Supreme Court has not yet provided a detailed explanation for rejecting the Pearl family’s appeal, but Reuters noted the men have been in jail for 18 years, and “life” sentences in Pakistan usually involve a maximum of 14 years in prison.
“The Pearl family is in complete shock by the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. No amount of injustice will defeat our resolve to fight for justice for Daniel Pearl,” family lawyer Faisal Siddiqi told Reuters on Thursday.
“Thursday’s decision is a complete travesty of justice and the release of these killers puts in danger journalists everywhere and the people of Pakistan. We urge the U.S. government to take all necessary actions under the law to correct this injustice,” the family said in a statement Siddiqi released.
“We are deeply disappointed that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acquitted and ordered the release of Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh, despite overwhelming evidence of Sheikh’s involvement in the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, which led directly to his murder. Daniel Pearl deserves justice and Sheikh deserves to pay for his crime. Journalists everywhere are less safe today due to this decision,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in its own statement on the acquittal.
The U.S. has expressed an interest in taking custody of Sheikh and trying him for Pearl’s murder, but no legal strategy for securing his extradition has been announced yet.
The Indian government was also outraged by Sheikh’s acquittal, calling it a “travesty of justice” and saying it “demonstrates the lack of seriousness on the part of Pakistan on taking action on terror-related issues.” Sheikh served jail time in India for allegedly participating in the abduction of tourists in 1994; he was freed in a ransom deal with terrorists who hijacked an Indian jetliner.