ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered on Thursday the release of a Pakistani-British man convicted and later acquitted in the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.
The court also dismissed an appeal of Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh's acquittal filed by Pearl’s family and the Pakistani government.
A minister in the Sindh province where Sheikh is being held said the government had exhausted all options to keep him locked up — an indication Sheikh could be free within days. The "Supreme Court is the court of last resort," Murtaza Wahab, Sindh's law minister, told The Associated Press.
"The Pearl family is in complete shock by the majority decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to acquit and release Ahmed Omer Sheikh and the other accused persons who kidnapped and killed Daniel Pearl," the Pearl family said in a statement released by their lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi.
The brutality of Pearl's killing shocked many in 2002, years before the Islamic State group began releasing videos of their militants beheading journalists. An autopsy report told the gruesome details of the Wall Street Journal reporter’s killing and dismemberment.
Sheikh was convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in the port city of Karachi, during which he was kidnapped. Pearl had been investigating the link between Pakistani militants 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.
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 Mohammed as saying. Mohammad first disclosed his role while he was held in CIA custody and subjected to waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other forms of torture. He remains in the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay and has never been charged with the journalist's death.
Sheikh had long denied any involvement in Pearl’s death, but the Supreme Court on Wednesday heard that he acknowledged writing a letter in 2019 admitting a minor role — raising hopes for some that he might remain behind bars.
Sheikh has been on death row since his conviction — even after his subsequent acquittal — and is currently being held in a Karachi jail. A three-judge Supreme Court ruled 2 to 1 to uphold Sheikh’s acquittal and ordered him released, according to the Pearl family lawyer.
A lawyer for Sheikh said the court also ordered the release of three other Pakistanis who had been sentenced to life in prison for their part in Pearl’s kidnapping and death. The three — Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil and Salman Saqib — all played lesser roles, such as providing a laptop or internet access to send pictures of Pearl, with a gun to his head, with demands that all prisoners at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay prison be released. Yet at the original trial all four were charged with the same crimes.
"These people should not have been in prison even for one day," Mehmood A. Sheikh, who is not related to his client, said.
He warned the Sindh provincial government against delaying their release, as it has done in the past with his client, even after being slapped with a contempt charge.
"I expect the Sindh government will not make a mockery of justice by continuing ... to not release them for no good reason whatsoever," he said.
Washington previously said it would seek Sheikh's extradition to the United States to be tried there, if the acquittal was upheld. It's not clear whether Pakistan would support his extradition or even under what grounds it could go ahead.
In a statement Thursday, acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson said the Justice Department was "deeply concerned" by the Pakistani court ruling and that Sheikh must be held accountable.
"While we remain grateful for the Pakistani government’s opposition to these acquittals on appeal, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Department of Justice reiterates that the United States stands ready to take custody of Sheikh to stand trial here on the pending charges against him," Wilkinson said.
Sheik was indicted in the U.S. in 2002 for hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, resulting in the murder of Pearl, as well as the 1994 kidnapping of another United States citizen in India, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
The case seems certain to test the new Biden administration’s skill in dealing with Pakistan, considered a key ally in getting peace in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The Pearl family urged both the U.S. and Pakistani governments to take action to "correct this injustice."
"Today’s decision is a complete travesty of justice and the release of these killers puts in danger journalists everywhere and the people of Pakistan," the family's statement said.
Later Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. was "outraged by the Pakistani Supreme Court decision to affirm the acquittals of those responsible" for Pearl’s slaying and underscored the administration's commitment to secure justice for Pearl’s family.
"This decision to exonerate and release Sheikh and the other suspects is an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan," she said, calling on the "Pakistani government to expeditiously review its legal options, including allowing the United States to prosecute Sheikh for the brutal murder of an American citizen and journalist."
Siddiqi, the Pearl family lawyer, said the only legal avenue available now is to ask for a review of the court's decision to uphold Sheikh's acquittal. However, he said the review would be conducted by the same court that made the decision. "In practical terms," that means the case is closed in Pakistan, he said.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard Sheikh admit to a minor role in Pearl's kidnapping — a dramatic turn of events after he had denied any involvement for 18 years. Siddiqi, the Pearl family lawyer, had expected it would advance his case. Still, Siddiqi had previously said winning was an uphill battle.
Sheikh and the three other men ordered released Thursday were all acquitted in April by the Sindh High Court on the grounds that the initial prosecution’s evidence was insufficient. During the appeal of that acquittal, Siddiqi tried to convince the Supreme Court of Sheikh's guilt on at least one of the three charges he faced, specifically the kidnapping charge, which also carries the death penalty in Pakistan.
The court is expected to release a detailed explanation for Thursday's decision in the coming days.
Associated Press writers Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan, and Ben Fox, Eric Tucker and Ken Guggenheim in Washington contributed to this report.