Islamabad: Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed appeals against the acquittal of British-born al-Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in the sensational kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl in 2002 and ordered his release, a judgement denounced by the American journalist's family as "a complete travesty of justice."
Pearl, the 38-year-old South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was abducted and beheaded while he was in Pakistan investigating a story in 2002 on the links between the country's powerful spy agency ISI and al-Qaeda.
Sheikh and his three aides - Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil and Salman Saqib - were convicted and sentenced in the abduction and murder case of Pearl in Karachi in 2002.
Pearl's murder took place three years after Sheikh, along with Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, was released by India in 1999 and given safe passage to Afghanistan in exchange for the nearly 150 passengers of hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814.
He was serving a prison term in India for kidnappings of Western tourists in the country.
A three-judge bench of the apex court led by Justice Mushir Alam on Thursday dismissed the Sindh government's appeal against the Sindh High Court's (SHC) decision to overturn the conviction of Sheikh in the Pearl murder case. The beheading of the American journalist in 2002 had grabbed international headlines.
The bench issued a 2:1 split judgment to uphold the SHC order by rejecting the appeals and ordered Sheikh should be set free, his lawyer Mahmood Sheikh told the media.
The court ordered that three others, who had been sentenced to life in prison for their part in Pearl's kidnapping and death, also be freed.
Ruth and Judea Pearl - the parents of Pearl - criticised the judgment that would endanger the lives of journalists everywhere, said Faisal Siddiqi, the Pearl family lawyer.
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 said in a statement.
Siddiqi said the only option left for the prosecution was to file a review against the apex court judgment. But the review appeal is heard by the same bench which makes it highly unlikely that the same judges will overturn their own verdict.
The history of review showed that such appeals seldom succeed. The review will be filed once the detailed judgment is issued in the coming weeks.
Sheikh in a handwritten letter to the SHC in 2019 admitted his limited involvement in the killing of Pearl. The letter was presented to the Supreme Court nearly two weeks ago and Sheikh's lawyer on Wednesday confirmed the letter.
The accused, however, didn't explain the nature of his role which he said was just minor.
In April 2020, a two-judge Sindh High Court bench commuted the death sentence of 46-year-old Sheikh to seven years imprisonment. The court also acquitted his three aides who were serving life terms in the case - almost two decades after they were found guilty and jailed.
The Sindh government and family of Pearl filed petitions in the apex court, challenging the high court verdict.
The Sindh government invoked the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) Ordinance 1960 to keep the four men under detention.
Their continuous detention was challenged in the Sindh High Court, which on December 24 directed security agencies not to keep Sheikh and other accused under "any sort of detention" and declared all notifications of the Sindh government related to their detention "null and void".
US expresses concern
This order elicited an immediate response from the US which on December 25 expressed its deep concerns over the SHC order.
The US State Department said that it will continue to monitor any developments in the case and will continue to support the Pearl family "through this extremely difficult process" while honouring the legacy of Pearl as a "courageous journalist".
The US has been mounting pressure on Pakistan, demanding justice for Pearl.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken has expressed concern over Pakistan Supreme Court's decision and said that the judgement is an affront to terrorism victims everywhere.
In a strongly worded statement, Blinken urged Pakistan to explore all legal options to ensure that the killers of Pearl are brought to justice.
The United States is deeply concerned by the Pakistani Supreme Court's decision to acquit those involved in Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and murder and any proposed action to release them, he said.
Last month, the US said it is ready to take custody of Sheikh, asserting that Washington will not allow him to evade justice.
"We cannot allow him to evade justice for his role in Daniel Pearl's abduction and murder," Acting US Attorney General Jeffrey A Rosen said.
"We understand that Pakistani authorities are taking steps to ensure that Omar Sheikh remains in custody while the Supreme Court appeal seeking to reinstate his conviction continues," Rosen said in a statement released by the US State Department.
"The separate judicial rulings reversing his conviction and ordering his release are an affront to terrorism victims everywhere," he said.
"We remain grateful for the Pakistani government's actions to appeal such rulings to ensure that he and his co-defendants are held accountable. If, however, those efforts do not succeed, the United States stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial here," he said.
The Supreme Court judgment paves the way for Sheikh's release after spending more about 18 years behind the bars. He was not released by the authorities after the SHC judgment and kept in the jail under the MPO regulations.
It is not clear if he will be released now because the Sindh government has so far refused to set him free. Another bench of the apex court is hearing the case of continuous detention.
It is a travesty of justice: India
India on Thursday described as a "travesty of justice" the Pakistan Supreme Court's order to release Omar Saeed Sheikh.
"It is 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 said at a media briefing.
Srivastava said the case truly demonstrated Pakistan's intent on tackling terrorism.
"I had mentioned earlier about the very low conviction rate in Pakistan when it comes to sentencing of terror accused. This case truly demonstrates Pakistan's intent on taking action on terror front," Srivastava said.
"Our position on Pakistan taking sustained, verifiable, credible and irreversible action against terrorism and terrorist funding emanating from all territory under its control remain unchanged," he said.