Pakistan’s Supreme Court orders the release on Thursday of a British citizen convicted of kidnapping and murder Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
The decision comes nearly two decades after the journalist’s body was found in a shallow grave in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. A videotape showing Pearl’s beheading sent to the US consulate appeared in the context of the terrorist war after 9/11. Pearl’s assassination became a sign of the violence in cinema committed by Islamic extremist groups in the years that followed.
The 2-1 decision was based on an appeal by the Pearl family and the Pakistani government against a provincial court ruling last April that overturned the Sheikh’s murder sentence and the sentences of three accomplices.
Thursday’s decision was immediately condemned by the Pearl family, who described it as a “complete parody of justice.” They called on the United States to take action.
“The release of these killers puts journalists everywhere and people in Pakistan in jeopardy. We call on the US government to take all necessary action under the law to correct this injustice,” the family said in a statement. “We also hope that the Pakistani authorities will take all necessary steps to correct this parody of justice. No injustice will defeat our determination to fight for justice for Daniel Pearl.”
The Biden administration had no immediate comment. But in late December, President Trump’s attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, issued a statement saying the United States was ready to take custody of a sheikh to face trial in the United States on the grounds that he had killed American citizen.
It was unclear when the sheikh would be released from Karachi’s main prison. Calls to the prison were not received immediately. Sheikh’s lawyer said he expects to see his client’s release on Friday.
In April, Sindh’s Supreme Court ruled that the sheikh was guilty of abducting Pearl, but that his seven-year sentence for the crime had long since been served. The court ruling blinded the Pearl family, who believed the sheikh would remain behind bars for life.
Despite the April ruling, state authorities are holding the Sheikh and the others in custody, arguing that their release poses a risk to public safety.
Sindh’s chief prosecutor, Faiz Shah, who heard the Pearl family’s complaint, told NPR that the judges ruled as soon as the lawyers presented their arguments. He says they are still waiting for a written verdict. Once they receive it, they will apply to the Supreme Court to review the entire petition. However, these applications rarely lead to the annulment of a decision.
The Supreme Court ruling came just a day after the sheikh acknowledged that he had a “minor” role in Pearl’s death – overturning 18 years of denial. The Associated Press said his handwritten letter was submitted to the court two weeks ago.
The sheikh also writes that he knows who killed Perla, identifying him as a Pakistani military ata-ur-Rahman, also known as Naeem Bokhari. The AP reported that Ata-ur-Rahman had been executed in connection with an attack on a paramilitary base in southern Karachi. Sheikh’s lawyer, Mehmud A. Sheikh – the two are unrelated – said the letter was written under duress. He did not provide further details.
The allegation that Ata-ur-Rahman is Perla’s killer further adds to the confusion as to who actually executed the journalist. The killer’s face is not shown in the video.
In 2007, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged leader of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, told a U.S. military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that he had killed Pearl. But KSM, as is widely known, has never been formally charged with the crime. Reports at the time said that because KSM had been tricked – a form of torture – prosecutors believed his the confession may not stand up in court.
The sheikh is believed to have helped lure Pearl to Karachi as he investigated links between Pakistani fighters and so-called “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. Pearl was then abducted and killed.
The sheikh had a history of militancy before the Pearl case. He was convicted of kidnapping Western tourists in India in 1994, but was released when militants hijacked an Indian plane to Afghanistan to demand his release.
He spent years in Afghanistan, where he is believed to have linked up with al Qaeda, and at some point returned to Pakistan.
But the 2002 Pearl murder case seemed hasty and clumsy. An in-depth investigation into Pearl’s death at Georgetown University found that prosecutors used perjury evidence – along with a host of other errors. He identified the sheikh as the leader of Pearl’s abduction and murder, but said he and the other accomplices were not present when the journalist was killed.
This investigation prompted the sheikh’s lawyer to appeal his sentence – which led to Sindh’s Supreme Court overturning his murder sentence – and the Supreme Court upheld that decision.