ISLAMABAD — A ruling by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Monday paves the way for a man convicted of involvement in the gruesome 2002 murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl to walk free later this week.
The Supreme Court refused a government request to suspend a lower court’s ruling exonerating Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh of Pearl’s murder before a 90-day detention order expires on Thursday.
The Supreme Court also refused to immediately hear the appeal and instead said the appeal would be heard on Sept. 25.
Saeed Sheikh was ordered to remain in detention in April after the Sindh High Court overturned the murder conviction and death sentence, generating outrage from Pearl’s family, the U.S. government and media rights groups.
The 90-day detention was ordered under a public order regulation that allows detainees to be held longer if their release could incite violence and chaos.
The lower court upheld a kidnapping charge that carries a seven-year sentence. Saeed Sheikh has been in prison for 18 years, all spent on death row.
“For 18 years he hasn’t even seen the sun. He has been in solitary confinement on death row,” his lawyer Mahmood Sheikh, who is no relation, said in a telephone interview on Monday following the Supreme Court’s refusal to quickly hear the government’s appeal.
Pearl’s parents have also filed an appeal to Pakistan’s Supreme Court challenging the lower court’s ruling.
The government prosecutor, Faiz Shah, declined to say whether the government would seek an extension of Saeed Sheikh’s detention. Saeed Sheikh’s lawyer said a review board would have to be established to extend his detention.
The Sindh High Court in April also acquitted three others accused in the case: Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil, and Salman Saqib, who were earlier sentenced to life in prison. Saeed Sheikh, a former student at the London School of Economics, and the others were convicted in 2002.
Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was kidnapped in Pakistan in early 2002 while working on a story about Islamic militants. A videotape received by U.S. diplomats in February of that year confirmed that the 38-year-old was dead. He had been beheaded.
In court testimony and emails released during the 2002 trial, Saeed Sheikh said he developed a personal relationship with Pearl before he was kidnapped, with both sharing their concerns about their wives, who were pregnant at the time. Marianne Pearl gave birth to their son Adam in May 2002.
The Pearl Project, an investigative journalism team at Georgetown University, carried out a three-year investigation into Pearl’s kidnapping and death. They concluded the reporter was beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and later described as the architect of the 9-11 attacks on the United States. Mohammad is a prisoner at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“The prosecution’s cases are won or lost not on the basis of emotion, they are won or lost on the basis of evidence and in this case the prosecution did a woeful job,” said Sheikh, the lawyer. “If Daniel Pearl’s parents have any grievance or complaint it should be against the Pakistani authorities for the prosecution’s failings.”
Saeed Sheikh had been arrested in 1994 by Indian authorities, accused of kidnapping three Britons and an American, who were all freed unharmed, in Indian-ruled Kashmir.
In 1999, India freed Saeed Sheikh and two other militants in exchange for the release of 155 passengers and crew aboard an Indian Airlines plane hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Kathy Gannon, The Associated Press