Travesty of justice: India after Pak upholds acquittal of Daniel Pearl's killer
India on Thursday described the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision to free Omar Saeed Sheikh, one of three terrorists freed by New Delhi in 1999 in exchange for a hijacked airliner who was later convicted of beheading journalist Daniel Pearl, as “a travesty of justice”.
A three-judge bench upheld the Sindh high court's order of April last year to acquit Sheikh and three other men convicted of the 2002 abduction and murder of Pearl. The apex court also dismissed the Sindh provincial government’s appeal against the high court’s ruling.
The bench said in a brief order it was acquitting Sheikh by “extending the benefit of doubt to him”, and it directed authorities to release the four men “forthwith if not required to be detained in connection with any other case”. One of the three judges opposed the decision.
Hours after the verdict was announced in Islamabad, India said the development reflected Pakistan’s lax attitude towards prosecuting known terrorists. India reiterated its demand for Pakistan to take “sustained, verifiable, credible and irreversible action” against terror and terrorist funding emanating from all territory under its control.
“It is also a travesty of justice not to find Omar Saeed guilty of any charges in this heinous act of terror,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava told a weekly news briefing.
“I’d mentioned earlier about the very low conviction rate in Pakistan when it comes to sentencing of terror accused and this case truly demonstrates the lack of any seriousness on the part of Pakistan on taking action on terror-related issues,” he said.
Sheikh, a British citizen of Pakistani-origin, was the main suspect in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Pearl.
Pearl, 38, was South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal when he was abducted in Karachi in January 2002 while researching links between militants in Pakistan and Richard C Reid, known as the “shoe bomber” for trying to detonate a bomb while on a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001. Pearl was later killed by his captors in Karachi.
Sheikh was arrested in India in 1994 and imprisoned over the kidnapping of one American and three British tourists. He was freed with Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) founder Masood Azhar and terrorist Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar in exchange for passengers of Indian Airlines flight IC-814, which was hijacked by a group of Pakistani terrorists from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December 1999.
The US state department expressed strong concern last month after the Sindh high court ordered the release of Sheikh and the three other convicts. Thursday’s development is unlikely to go down well with the new US administration at a time when Islamabad is seeking to rebuild ties with Washington under President Joe Biden.
The US had said it may seek to try Sheikh if efforts to keep him in prison fail. Pearl’s family, which also challenged the Sindh high court’s order to free Sheikh, was in “complete shock”, the family’s lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi, told Reuters.
“No amount of injustice will defeat our resolve to fight for justice for Daniel Pearl,” Siddiqi said, adding there were no further legal avenues to pursue in Pakistan.
The Pakistan Supreme Court’s order came a day after it emerged that Sheikh had acknowledged playing a "minor” role in Pearl’s killing. Sheikh admitted to limited involvement in the murder in a handwritten letter, dating to 2019, which was submitted to the Supreme Court nearly a fortnight ago.
Following Sheikh’s acquittal by the high court last year, the Sindh government had detained him under the Maintenance of Public Order ordinance and Anti-Terrorism Act.
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