Script: Priyanka Singh, Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
On January 28, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the release of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British born terrorist convicted in the grisly Daniel Pearl murder case of 2002. Previously, Omar Sheikh and three other co-convicts were acquitted by the Sindh High Court in April 2020. The verdict of the Sindh High Court was challenged by the Pakistani government and Pearl’s kin. However, the Supreme Court upheld the previous verdict and ordered Sheikh’s release. The Supreme Court rejected previous assertions including Sindh High Court’s notifications pertaining to the case describing continued detention of the men as an “illegal” act. Not only this, the Supreme Court has ordered that Sheikh be shifted from the death cell to a government accommodation immediately.
A US citizen, Daniel Pearl was the South Asia Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal. In Pakistan, he was reporting on the militants’ groups’ operatives and had approached leaders of such groups in order to collect evidence for his stories. It was in this process that Omar Sheikh is said to have held a meeting with Pearl in a hotel at Rawalpindi. Sheikh is known to have assured Daniel Pearl of facilitating access to a militant cleric. It was during his visit to Karachi that Pearl was abducted and later gruesomely beheaded by a group of terrorists, Sheikh purportedly being one of them.
In the aftermath of the high-profile killing, the then Musharraf regime was swift to act and arrest the men behind Pearl’s Killing. In 2002 itself, a Pakistani anti-terrorism court sentenced Sheikh and his accomplices to death. However, over the years, the prosecution gradually eroded the case by not being able to furnish incriminating admissible evidence before the courts against the convicts. Some doubts have been continuously cast on Sheikh’s actual role in the murder. It is alleged that even though he may be involved in Pear’s abduction, the murder was executed by another terrorist who is lodged in Guantanamo Bay.
Daniel Pearl murder case happened at the height of the US-led War on Terror against the Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak region. Pakistan was playing a front-line role for the US in this war. There was obviously US pressure behind Pakistan government’s quickness in arresting and sentencing Omar Sheikh and his associates-Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adil. With the passage of time though, the public attention towards the case receded and it increasingly got entangled in the judicial delays and procedural ordeals. Nonetheless, the US government and Pearl’s family have maintained a focus on the case.
The US State Department observed it was “deeply concerned” when the Sindh High Court ordered immediate realised of Sheikh last year. The US’s displeasure forced authorities to hold up Sheikh’s release for some time. It remains to be seen how sharply the US is going to react to the current judgement at a time when the Biden administration is talking of further strengthening strategic ties with Pakistan. Already a group of 36 US Congressmen have written to the US Envoy to Pakistan, Asad Majeed Khan, urging through him the Pakistani government to review Sheikh’s acquittal.
Before this, the newly appointed US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, issued a statement that the US was ready to conduct Omar Sheikh’s trial in the US. Blinken’s contention was further significantly underscored in the Congressmen’ letter to the Pakistani envoy.
Over the years, Omar Sheikh’s name has figured in several terrorists acts/conspiracies. In the 1990s, he was languishing in an Indian jail. He was later released along with two other dreaded terrorists in the swap deal forced upon the government of India by the IC-814 hostage hijack crisis in December 1999. In the then Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh was jailed for his role in killing foreign tourists in the valley as an operative of the Al Faran group. Later, his involvement in facilitating funds to one of the hijackers also came to light during the 9/11 investigations.
Pakistani state and judicial systems have been marred by the country’s perennial use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. The release of Omar Sheikh and several such terrorists is further testimony to Pakistan’s persistent and unabashed fraternising agents of violence and bloodshed.