Man accused of beheading U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl ordered released by Pakistani court

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The man convicted of beheading U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl is set to walk free after Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered his release Thursday Jan. 28, 2021.

The Pearl family was “in complete shock” after hearing of the decision, according to a statement from their lawyer Faisal Siddiqi, who called the ruling “a complete travesty of justice.”

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was the main suspect in the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter covering militants in Pakistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Saeed, a British-born Pakistani who was implicated in other kidnappings, was sentenced to death for Pearl’s murder and kidnapping, but his case was reopened because of claims of lack of evidence.

Saeed’s sentence was overturned by a provincial court last year. The Pearl family quickly appealed, but that was ultimately dismissed Thursday by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

The court did not provide any justification behind its ruling. The complete reasons will “be recorded later,” the court said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki expressed outrage Thursday. “This decision to exonerate and release [Sheikh] and the other suspects is an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan,” she said at a news briefing. “We call on the Pakistani government to expeditiously review its legal options, including allowing the United States to prosecute Sheikh for the brutal murder of an American citizen and journalist.”

“This is an infuriating and unjust decision,” said the Wall Street Journal’s editor in chief, Matt Murray. “We’ll continue to support efforts to hold to account those responsible for the brutal murder of Danny.”

The State Department did not comment on Thursday’s decision but had described the 2020 overturning of Saeed’s sentence as “an affront to victims of terrorism everywhere.” Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had vowed the United States would continue to “demand justice for his brutal murder.”

The Justice Department had issued a statement in December from acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, who called last year’s ruling “an affront to terrorism victims everywhere.” He said that Pakistani authorities were trying to keep Sheikh in custody while appeals against the ruling would continue.

Rosen had also said: “If, however, those efforts do not succeed, the United States stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial here. We cannot allow him to evade justice for his role in Daniel Pearl’s abduction and murder.”

But following the decision from Pakistan’s highest court Thursday, there are few legal avenues open to the Pearl family. Lawyers representing the Pearl family may petition for a review of Thursday’s ruling, but it’s rare for such reviews to be accepted, according to Abdul Latif Afridi, the president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association.

The lawyer representing Saeed said: “Today’s order by the Supreme Court shows that the courts are independent, and they don’t come under any pressure. I am satisfied with the court’s order.” The lawyer, Mahmood Sheikh, said he expects his client to be released immediately.

Pakistani authorities have prevented Saeed from being released in the past, and Pakistani legal experts say it’s possible that another charge could be brought against him to keep him behind bars.

Pearl was told he was meeting with a radical cleric when instead he was kidnapped, held for days and beheaded. When Saeed was convicted months later, he was sentenced for planning Pearl’s kidnapping and murder.

But a 2011 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity’s Pearl Project found that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, killed Pearl. Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and is being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He is not charged in the journalist’s killing.

Pakistan was under immense pressure in 2002 to find the people responsible for Pearl’s killing. At the time of Saeed’s conviction, defense attorneys raised questions about the weight of evidence against him.

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