Explained: What is the Daniel Pearl murder case, and who is Omar Sheikh?

Daniel Pearl, aged 38, was an American journalist who worked as the South Asia bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal.

On Thursday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the release of British-born militant Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was convicted for the abduction and murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. The court dismissed all charges against Sheikh who has already spent 18 months in prison in Pakistan for the crime.

Last month, the Sindh High Court in its order said that Sheikh and his three aides– Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adil– who were 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”.

On Thursday, the judges ordered that Sheikh be released immediately if he is not wanted in any other case. Faiz Shah, the government’s lawyer, told The Wall Street Journal that he was disappointed about Thursday’s outcome and that the authorities would challenge the verdict. “The U.S. government has said it is willing to intervene in the case, but it isn’t clear how it could do so. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials say they have been pressing Pakistani authorities to keep Mr. Sheikh in prison,” the WSJ report said.

When was Daniel Pearl murdered?

Daniel Pearl, aged 38, was an American journalist who worked as the South Asia bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. He was abducted in Pakistan’s Karachi in January 2002 while working on a story about Pakistani terror groups linked to Al Qaeda.

Pearl was later beheaded and a graphic video of his decapitation was sent to Karachi’s US consulate about a month later.

After global outcry and pressure from the US, Pakistan’s then-President Pervez Musharraf had Omar Sheikh and the three other militants arrested in the same year, after which they were convicted for Pearl’s abduction and murder. Sheikh remained on death row since this conviction.

In 2011, however, a report by students and faculty at Georgetown University and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists cast doubt on the convictions. The report said that while Sheikh and the three others were responsible for abducting Pearl, they were not culpable for his murder.

Pearl’s killing is believed to have been carried out by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a militant who was also involved in the September 11 attacks and is currently at the US military’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Who is Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh?

Sheikh is among the three terrorists that India had freed in 2000 in exchange for the hostages of the hijacked IC-814.

Sheikh, now 47, grew up in East London and dropped out of university to join relief efforts during the Bosnian war. Pervez Musharraf in his book ‘In the Line of Fire’ has alleged that Sheikh was sent to the Balkans by the British intelligence agency MI6.

After the Balkans, Sheikh joined a terror outfit in Pakistan and trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan before being sent to India for kidnapping Western tourists.

In India, he served time in jail from 1994 to 1999 for his role in the kidnappings.

On January 1, 2000, Sheikh was freed along with Maulana Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar by India in exchange for the nearly 150 hostages of the hijacked Indian Airlines flight.

Sheikh then travelled back to Pakistan. At the time of his arrest in 2002, he was a member of the terror group Jaish-e-Muhammad.

A year after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, Sheikh made hoax calls to then Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and then Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee from prison in a bid to heighten India-Pakistan tensions.

India has also linked Sheikh to the 9/11 attacks, accusing him of taking part in transferring $100,000 to Mohammad Atta, one of the militants who flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York City.

What was the case before Sindh High Court?

In April 2020, the Sindh High Court overturned the murder conviction and instead found Sheikh guilty of the lesser charge of kidnapping, sentencing him to seven years in prison. However, as Sheikh has already been on death row for almost two decades, the sentence was counted as time served.

The court had also acquitted the three others who had been serving life sentences in the case in a decision that was condemned by the US State Department and Pearl’s family.

The Sindh government then appealed against the decision, as did Pearl’s family, and refused to release the four, keeping them in detention under the Maintenance of Public Order.

On July 1, the detention was extended by three months under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, and then further by 90 more days.

Last month, the court released Sheikh and the three others after the continuous detention was challenged, but has also asked their names to be placed on the no-fly list so that they cannot leave the country, and has directed them to appear before the court whenever summoned, reports in PTI and Dawn said.

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