By KATHY GANNON, Associated Press
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Feb. 2 ordered the Pakistani-British man acquitted of the 2002 gruesome beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl off death row and moved to a so-called government “safe house.”
Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh, who has been on death row for 18 years, will be under guard and will not be allowed to leave the safe house, but he will be able to have his wife and children visit him.
“It is not complete freedom. It is a step toward freedom,” said Sheikh’s father, Ahmad Saeed Sheikh, who attended the hearing.
The Pakistan government has been scrambling to keep Sheikh in jail since a Supreme Court order Jan. 28 upheld his acquittal in the Wall Street Journal reporter’s death, triggering outrage by Pearl’s family and the U.S. administration.
In a final effort to overturn the acquittal, Pakistan’s government as well as the Pearl family filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, asking it to review the decision to exonerate Sheikh of Pearl’s murder. The family’s lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi, however, said such a review had a slim chance of success because the same Supreme Court judges who ordered Sheikh’s acquittal sit on the review panel.
The U.S. government has said that it would seek Sheikh’s extradition if his acquittal is upheld. Sheikh has been indicted in the United States on Pearl’s murder as well as in a 1994 kidnapping of an American citizen in Indian-ruled sector of the divided region of Kashmir. The American was eventually freed.
Sheikh was arrested by India after the 1994 kidnappings, but was among four terror suspects freed by India on Dec. 31, 1999, in exchange for the hostages on an Indian Airlines aircraft that was hijacked and taken from Nepal to then Taliban-controlled Afghan city of Kandahar.
The order sending Sheikh to a safe house would seem to be a concession to the federal government, as well as the government of southern Sindh province where Karachi is the capital. The Sindh government has refused successive orders to release Sheikh, even courting contempt charges from lower courts.
Sheikh’s lawyer, Mehmood A. Sheikh, told The Associated Press that the order to send his client to the safe house was given to allow the Sindh government time to argue against his release under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism law, in connection to Sheikh’s affiliation with terrorist organizations.
“They have never argued or charged them with belonging to a terrorist organization,” said the lawyer. He said the next court hearing about his client’s continued detention would not be for another two weeks. The lawyer and Sheikh are not related.
In the government-run safe house, Sheikh will be under a 24-hour guard — often by military personnel — and will not be allowed to leave the house. Locations of such safe houses are usually kept secret; Pakistan’s security establishment has several such facilities across the country.
Pearl disappeared on Jan. 23, 2002, in the port city of Karachi where he was investigating links between Pakistani militant groups and Richard C. Reid, dubbed the “shoe bomber” after his attempt to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes. Sheikh was convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in the port city of Karachi, during which he was kidnapped.
Pearl’s body was discovered in a shallow grave soon after a video of his beheading was delivered to the U.S. Consulate in Karachi.
The Pentagon in 2007 released a transcript in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, said he had killed Pearl.
“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl,” the transcript quoted Mohammad as saying. Mohammad first disclosed his role while he was held in CIA custody. He remains in the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay and has never been charged in the journalist’s death.
Sheikh had long denied any involvement in Pearl’s death, but Pakistan’s Supreme Court last month heard that he acknowledged writing a letter in 2019 admitting a minor role — raising hopes for some that he might remain behind bars.
In a series of tweets over the weekend, Pearl’s family urged followers to “call your lawmakers in Pakistan, in the U.S., the world to support Danny’s parents,” to keep Sheikh behind bars.
Siddiqi, the Pearl family lawyer, said the original murder trial back in 2002 charged all four as one, which complicated the case and allowed the court to free all if there was doubt about the guilt of even one of the suspects. Siddiqi said at the time the prosecutor was under considerable pressure and threats from militants forced the trial to be held within the prison grounds for safety reasons.
Though the U.S. has said it’s ready to prosecute Sheikh, there are hurdles to his extradition. Pakistan, like the U.S., has a double jeopardy rule that prevents a person from being tried for the same offense twice. The U.S. also does not have an extradition treaty with Pakistan, although Islamabad has in the past bypassed legalities to send suspects to the U.S., including Mohammad, the alleged 9/11 mastermind.
Last week’s ruling that exonerated Sheikh also exonerated another three men accused in Pearl’s murder who had been serving life sentences. They too were ordered to be held in a safe house.
Pakistan has previously sent many suspects in high-profile cases to safe houses. In 2018, a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was acquitted of blasphemy charges after spending eight years on death row ,was held in a safe house until her acquittal was reviewed and she eventually was able to leave Pakistan for safety in Canada in 2019.