The impugned order of the Sindh High Court of Pakistan to release British-born Al-Qaida leader Ahmed Omar Sayeed Sheikh and his three aids, convicted and sentenced in kidnapping and murder of 38-year United States journalist Daniel Pearl, has dealt a major blow to the hapless family of the slain scribe, who was continuously fighting for justice for the last 18 years. The judgement has also raised a big question mark, as usual, on the impartiality, independence, fairness and above-board character of the Pakistani judiciary as well as the provincial government. However, in the face of intense pressure from the United States, the Supreme Court of the Islamic State has stayed their release, at least for the time being.
The Sindh High Court in its order said that Sheikh and his three aides- Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adil- who were earlier convicted and sentenced in the case, should not be kept under ‘any sort of detention’ and declared all notifications of the Sindh Government related to their detention ‘null and void’. It also described the four men’s detention as ‘illegal’.
In the order, the court further said that Sheikh and the three other men would not be allowed to leave the country until the court had ruled on the case. But the court also directed that none of the men ‘be placed under preventative detention,’ it wrote, ‘without the prior permission of the court.’
It may be recalled that Sheikh and his accomplices were initially convicted for Pearl’s abduction and gruesome murder by trial court-an anti-terrorism court-and Sheikh remained on death row since this conviction.
However, in April this year, a two-judge Sindh High Court bench commuted death sentence of 46-year old Sheikh to seven years imprisonment. The court also acquitted his three aides, who were serving life terms in the case almost two decades after they were found guilty and jailed. In other words, the High Court downgraded Sheikh’s conviction to lesser crime of kidnapping, while dropping the murder charge. The court’s decision to overturn the rulings had then shocked the US Government, journalist advocacy groups and Pearl’s family and friends.
The April judgement seemed to be grossly influenced by a report carried out by students and faculty of Georgetown University and the International Consortium of Investigating Journalists, casting doubts on convictions. The report said that while Sheikh and three others were responsible for abducting Pearl, they were not culpable for his murder.The report claimed that Pearl’s killing was believed to have been carried out by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a terrorist who was also involved in the September 11 attacks, and is currently at the US military’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Moreover, the prosecution and government agencies also failed to prove the guilt of the convicts beyond any shadow of doubt, leading to commutation of their sentence into simple jail term, paving way for their release, as they had already undergone an imprisonment of 18 years since their arrest in 2002.
Surprised over the judgement, the aggrieved family, along with Pakistani Government, has challenged the impugned order before the Supreme Court. The appeal is being heard by a three-judge apex court bench headed by Justice Mushir Alam which will resume its hearing on 5 January. However, the Sindh Government refused to release them and kept them in detention under the maintenance of public order. Their continuous detention was challenged in the Sindh High Court, which ordered their release. However, it asked authorities to place their names on the no-fly list, so that they could not leave the country. It also directed them to appear before the court whenever summoned. Ruth and Judea Pearl – the parents of Pearl -has condemned decision made by Sindh High court and expressed full confidence in the Supreme Court to provide justice for their son and reinforce paramount of the freedom of the press.
“We refuse to believe that the Pakistani Government and Pakistani people will let such a travesty of justice tarnish the image and legacy of Pakistan,” they said in a statement.
Reacting to the unexpected order, the US State Department said, “We are deeply concerned by the reports of the December 24 ruling of Sindh High Court to release multiple terrorists responsible for the murder of Daniel Pearl. We understand that this case is ongoing and will be following closely. We continue to stand with Pearl family through this
extremely difficult process”.
(To be continued)