GP Insights

GP Insights # 463, 30 January 2021

Pakistan: Supreme Court orders the release of the accused in Daniel Pearl's murder case; the US says
D Suba Chandran

What happened?
On 28 January, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh's release in Daniel Pearl's murder case. Omar Sheikh is one of the primary accused in the kidnapping and beheading of Daniel Pearl, a journalist working with the Wall Street Journal in 2002. 

On 29 January, the Sindh government has filed a review petition in the Supreme Court, asking for a reconsideration of the decision. 

On 29 January, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken came down heavily on the release. The Department of State released a statement expressing the US's deep concerns over "the Pakistani Supreme Court's decision to acquit those involved in Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and murder and any proposed action to release them." The statement also read, "Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh was indicted in the United States in 2002 for hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, resulting in the murder of Pearl, the South Asia Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, as well as the 1994 kidnapping of another United States citizen in India. The court's decision is an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan." More importantly, the statement read: "We take note of the Attorney General's statement that he intends to seek review and recall of the decision. We are also prepared to prosecute Sheikh in the United States for his horrific crimes against an American citizen. We are committed to securing justice for Daniel Pearl's family and holding terrorists accountable."

What is the background?
First, the 19-year-old case relating to the kidnapping and brutal beheading of Daniel Pearl. At the time of the kidnapping and the beheading, Daniel Pearl was working with the Wall Street Journal and was pursuing a story relating to militancy in Pakistan. This was a period in which many journalists from the rest of the world have been pursuing multiple angles over any lead relating to the 9/11 attacks in the US. Daniel Pearl was doing one and was abducted in Karachi in January 2002. Subsequently, he was beheaded on 1 February 2002 in front of a video that demanded prisoners' release in Guantanamo Bay.

Second, the Sindh High Court's judgment in April 2020, and the refusal of the Sindh government to release the four accused, including Omar Sheikh. A two-member bench of the Sindh High Court acquitted Omar Sheikh and three others on the murder charge. The Court found the accused guilty of only kidnapping, for which it ordered a seven-year prison sentence. Since the accused were already in jail for more than 17 years at that time, the Sindh High Court ordered the government to release them. 

Third, the case in the Supreme Court, following the Sindh government's refusal to release the accused. And a new petition by Daniel Pearl's parents; in May 2020, they appealed to the Supreme Court against the Sindh High Court's decision and made a plea for a common cause demanding justice: "We are standing up for justice not only for our son, but for all our dear friends in Pakistan so they can live in a society free of violence and terror and raise their children in peace and harmony."

Fourth, the new US administration and the latest demand by the US Secretary of State. While respecting the ruling of Pakistan Supreme Court, a statement from the US Department of State has stated that the US is ready to "prosecute Sheikh in the United States for his horrific crimes against an American citizen." Though the US may not have an extradition treaty with Pakistan, in the past, many prisoners who were caught in Pakistan have been transferred to the US and spending time in Guantanamo Bay, including the al Qaeda terrorists. 

What does it mean?
First, the media freedom and the journalists' challenge – local and foreign in Pakistan to do their job, without fear and consequences. Worse, the legal system's ability in Pakistan to provide justice, in case anything goes against them while performing their duties, as Daniel Pearl did. During the last two decades, there has been a systematic campaign against the journalists and media houses, not only by the non-State actors but also the State actors.

Second, the problem of investigation and legal conviction on cases relating to terrorism. Daniel Pearl's murder case was a high profile one. So was Benazir Bhutto's. There is a serious problem with the investigation process in terror-related cases. Not only the friends and families of the victims demand it, but also international actors, including the FATF.

Third, the larger questions. If Omar Sheikh and the three other accused are innocents of the crime, who killed Daniel Pearl? What was Omar Sheikh, a British national, with a long list of kidnapping and terrorism cases – from Bosnia to India, doing in Karachi? Will Pakistan allow the other countries to prosecute Omar Sheikh?

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