Pakistan lawyers seek review of Daniel Pearl murder acquittals

·3-min read
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born jihadist, was arrested days after Pearl's abduction

Pakistani prosecutors filed a last-ditch attempt Friday to overturn the acquittal of a British-born militant convicted of masterminding the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, as the new US secretary of state directly pressed on the case.

Pakistan's top court on Thursday dismissed an appeal against a lower court's decision to clear Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and three others over the killing, after nearly two decades in jail.

The decision extended a legal tug of war between the Sindh provincial government -- who kept the group behind bars using emergency powers -- and the courts.

Fiaz Shah, prosecutor general for the Sindh government, told AFP that it had lodged a review of the verdict at the Supreme Court in the capital Islamabad.

"The petition was filed to seek a review and request the court to recall the order of acquittal," Shah said.

A senior government official with knowledge of ongoing legal procedures concerning the case told AFP that authorities were examining a plethora of available legal options to keep Sheikh incarcerated.

"Filing a review petition was one among those options," the official said, requesting anonymity.

The ruling immediately brought the case to the top of the agenda with President Joe Biden's new administration.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his first phone call with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi since taking office, directly voiced concern.

Blinken raised "how to ensure accountability for convicted terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and others responsible" for Pearl's murder, the US State Department said.

The White House earlier said it was "outraged" by the Supreme Court's ruling and has suggested allowing American officials to prosecute Omar Sheikh.

An official at Central Prison Karachi where Sheikh is being held said they had not received a formal court order for his release.

"As soon as the order is formally received, it will be followed," the official said, also on condition of anonymity.

Pearl was South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal when he was abducted in Karachi in January 2002 while researching a story about Islamist militants.

Nearly a month later, after a string of ransom demands, a graphic video showing his decapitation was given to officials.

Sheikh, 47, a British-born jihadist who once studied at the London School of Economics and had been involved in previous kidnappings of foreigners, was arrested days after Pearl's abduction.

He was later sentenced to death by hanging after telling a Karachi court that Pearl had already been killed days before the gruesome video of the journalist's beheading had been released.

The top court's ruling on Thursday follows an outcry last year when a lower court acquitted Sheikh of murder and reduced his conviction to a lesser charge of kidnapping -- overturning his death sentence and ordering him to be freed after almost two decades in prison.

That sparked a series of petitions, including from Pearl's family, but the Supreme Court rejected them in a split decision, upholding the acquittal.