Daniel Pearl murder case: SHC commutes death penalty of prime accused, acquits three accomplices

British national Omer Sheikh, who had been sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing Pearl in 2002, to now serve seven-year jail term

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KARACHI: The Sindh High Court on Wednesday acquitted three persons accused of being involved in the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl back in 2002. The court also converted the death penalty of the prime accused in the case, Omer Saeed Sheikh, into a seven-year imprisonment.

A two-judge bench of the high court, headed by Justice Mohammad Karim Khan Agha, had reserved the judgement last month after hearing the arguments of the appellants and the state counsel.

"The court has commuted Omar's death sentence to a seven year sentence," a defence lawyer told Reuters by telephone. "The murder charges were not proven, so he has given seven years for the kidnapping."

"Omar has already served 18 years, so his release orders will be issued sometime today. He will be out in a few days," he said.

A Sindh prosecutor said he would consider appealing against the court decision.

"We will go through the court order once it is issued, we will probably file an appeal," Faiz Shah, the provincial prosecutor general, told the news agency by telephone. 

British national Omer Sheikh had been sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing Daniel Pearl by a court in 2002, and his three accomplices – Fahad Naseem, Syed Salman Saqib and Sheikh Mohammad Adil – were sentenced to life imprisonment with a fine of Rs500,000 each. 

Pearl, a US national and the South Asian bureau chief of American publication The Wall Street Journal, was investigating militants in Karachi after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

He was kidnapped on January 23, 2002, in Karachi and later beheaded by his captors when their demands regarding his release were not met. Video emerged a few weeks later of his murder.

The counsel for the defense, Rai Bashir and Khawaja Naveed Ahmed, had submitted to court that the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. "Ahmed and the three other suspects had neither aided, abetted, or participated in the alleged crime of kidnapping for ransom," it was argued. 

They submitted that the prosecution witnesses in the case against Shiekh and others were mostly policemen, and their testimonies could not be relied upon. They said there was no eyewitness to the crime and the prosecution relied upon very weak circumstantial evidence for conviction.

The deputy prosecutor-general, Saleem Akhtar, however, had supported the anti-terrorism court's judgment and submitted that the prosecution had proved its case against the appellants beyond any shadow of a doubt while requesting the court to dismiss the appeals.

After hearing the arguments of all the parties to the case, the SHC bench acquitted three and commuted the sentence of the prime accused.

In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed disappointment with the verdict and asked for it to be appealed.

“The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disappointed to see justice in the murder case of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl denied by a Pakistani court today,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator.