The Daniel Pearl case

Omar Saeed Sheikh’s release puts a question mark over state’s security polic

In an astonishing verdict last month, Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Omar Saeed Sheikh, the main accused in killing of US journalist Daniel Pearl. The Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl was in Pakistan to investigate militant groups, when he was kidnapped in January 2002, and then a gruesome video of his beheading was sent to US authorities in Pakistan. The killing shocked Pakistan and US, eventually Sheikh and three others were arrested by the authorities. A local court sentenced Sheikh to death, while three others were sent to prison for life.

However, in April 2020, Sindh High Court (SHC) set aside the verdict, and ordered the Sindh government to release the accused. The provincial government, along with parents of Daniel Pearl, submitted a petition in Supreme Court against SHC verdict. After hearing the arguments, three-judge bench held up the SHC decision and ordered authorities to release all four suspects. The Provincial Advocate General, Salman Talibuddin confirmed: “By a majority of 2-1, they have acquitted all the accused persons and ordered their release.” Meanwhile, Pearl’s lawyer Faisal Siddiqi said that there is now only one way left, to file a review petition, but it would not be much help because the same bench will hear the review petition of the case.

A British national of Pakistani heritage, Sheikh has enjoyed a privileged life in London, and even attended the top London School of Economics. However, the 1990s Bosnia war changed him. The continuous attacks on Bosnian Muslims by Serbs, and their treatment in camps, and western countries’ indifference to their plight pushed Sheikh towards anti-West radicalism. He went to Bosnia and joined Harakat-ul Ansar, which later became Harakat-ul Mujahideen. The organization was declared a terrorist outfit by US in 1997. He also travelled to Indian Occupied Kashmir and was involved in abduction of foreign tourists. Multiple reports have further said that his British origin might have eased Pearl as he sought Sheikh’s help in tracking militants.

Security experts question why this is happening suddenly, after 18 years, since over the last two decades, there had been no significant development as Sheikh had been waiting for his death sentence, there were no reports of his innocence in the crime, but suddenly, the top courts have ordered the government to let him go. ‘Could it be another game of strategic assets,’ is now an oft asked question.

Experts underline the impact of the development on US-Pakistan bilateral ties, because currently the water is unclear about how Biden administration wants to walk with Pakistan. Analysts further maintain that the decision coming right after the new government is US is crucial.

It is not new that the agencies have kept a tab of these ‘assets’ and these developments can also be taken in context of recent change of the government in Washington DC. Could Sheikh be used as ‘Trump card’ against the Biden administration, to balance out Islamabad’s position in bilateral ties and more importantly in-currently stopped-Afghan peace process?

Observers maintain that media reports and diplomatic signs are showing that the Biden administration is not as eager as the Trump government in engaging in talks with Afghan Taliban, jeopardizing the US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan. It should also be remembered that a recent ‘asset’ has gotten free, former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan and currently threatening the Pakistani military of retaliation.

The US has retorted strongly. Washington is ‘outraged’ over the verdict by Supreme Court of Pakistan. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the decision: “an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including Pakistan.”

“I am deeply concerned by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to acquit those involved in Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder. We are committed to securing justice for the Pearl family and holding terrorists accountable,” he said.

Meanwhile, Pearl’s father, Judae Pearl told CNN that the family is in shock and total disbelief. “It is a crime against humanity, against journalism, against the core of our civilization. So, we are very shocked and hope some steps will be taken to correct for this injustice.”

Experts underline the impact of the development on US-Pakistan bilateral ties, because currently the water is unclear about how Biden administration wants to walk with Pakistan. Analysts further maintain that the decision coming right after the new government is US is crucial.

“Sheikh’s acquittal has created a conundrum for both countries. Until now, Pakistan has taken every legal step to keep Sheikh in jail but sending him to America could rile up opposition at home,” said Mohammad Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies.

“For America, snubbing Pakistan just when the two have agreed on exchanging intelligence on terror financing and the road to a political settlement in Afghanistan is at a critical juncture, could result in setbacks on both fronts.”

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