The United States “stands ready to take custody” of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the prime suspect in the kidnapping and murder by beheading of US journalist Daniel Pearl in February 2002.
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Jeffrey A. Rosen, acting US Attorney General, said in a statement Tuesday that the United States will put Sheikh on trial if an appeal to reinstate his murder conviction in a top Pakistani provincial court fails.
Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani origin, was convicted and sentenced to death for killing Pearl, but his conviction was overturned by a Pakistani court in April.
Pearl, The Wall Street Journal’s South Asian bureau chief, had been investigating a story about the alleged financing of al-Qaida via Pakistan-based militants. Pearl disappeared in Karachi on Jan. 23, 2002, on the way to what he believed would be an interview, and was decapitated by his captors nine days later. Video of Pearl’s murder by beheading was sent to the U.S. consulate.
The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty extremist group claimed responsibility for abducting Pearl, but Pakistani security officials said the kidnappers were members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned al-Qaida affiliate.
Karachi police arrested the four men in February 2002. In June 2002, a counterterrorism court sentenced Sheikh to death by hanging. The three others were sentenced to life in prison.
An appeals court in Karachi overturned Sheikh’s murder conviction in April, ruling that he was guilty only of kidnapping Pearl. The court commuted Sheikh’s death sentence to seven years in prison and acquitted his three accomplices.
Sheikh has already spent 18 years on death row, which the court said would be counted as time served toward his seven-year sentence, paving the way for his release. As of Tuesday , however, he remained in custody.
“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 Tuesday’s statement.
The statement also said that: “The separate judicial rulings reversing his conviction and ordering his release are an affront to terrorism victims everywhere. 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. We cannot allow him to evade justice for his role in Daniel Pearl’s abduction and murder,” Rosen concluded.
On December 24, a top Pakistani court ordered the immediate release of Sheikh and his three alleged co-conspirators in Pearl’s murder.
The US State Department swiftly and strongly reacted to the Pakistan court’s ruling.
“We continue to stand with the Pearl family through this extremely difficult process. We have been assured that the accused have not been released at this time,” it said in a statement.
Despite the High Court‘s ruling, the Sindh government has not yet released Sheikh or his alleged co-conspirators.
“The High Court had clarified that the accused should not be released if there is a Supreme Court restraining order regarding their detention,” according to an official government statement.
The Sindh government and Pearl’s parents have filed separate appeals with the Supreme Court against the appellant court’s April acquittal judgment.
Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth, said last week in a statement: “We refuse to believe that the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people will let such a travesty of justice tarnish the image and legacy of Pakistan. We believe that our son’s murderers should remain in jail because of the Supreme Court appeals, and we are also heartened to hear the government of Pakistan is filing an appeal against the latest release order so that our son’s murderers will remain in jail and justice will prevail. We have full confidence in the Supreme Court of Pakistan to provide justice for our beloved son and reinforce the paramount importance of the freedom of the press.”
The Supreme Court will resume its hearings on Jan 5, 2021.