Pakistan’s top court accepts appeal to keep British-born man on death row

Pakistan’s top court accepts appeal to keep British-born man on death row
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (AP/Zia Mazhar, File)

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has accepted an appeal by the family of American journalist Daniel Pearl seeking to keep a British-born Pakistani man on death row over the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter.

The court delayed until next week hearing the appeal over the lower court acquittal of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who had been on death row since his conviction in 2002 over Mr Pearl’s killing.

The Supreme Court ordered Sheikh to remain in custody but Faisal Siddiqi, the lawyer for Mr Pearl’s family, told The Associated Press the court will decide next week whether Sheikh will remain imprisoned during the course of the appeal, which could be years.

The government has argued against Sheikh’s release, despite his acquittal in April, saying it would endanger the public. But the Supreme Court will rule on that next week, Mr Siddiqi said. He said Pakistan’s top court expressed concern about keeping Sheikh locked up even though he stands acquitted.

“The appeal could take years,” Mr Siddiqi said: “Today the court admitted the appeal and next week it will decide if Sheikh stays in jail” until the appeal is decided. The family is arguing for Sheikh’s continued incarceration.

The Pearl family’s lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi (AP/Anjum Naveed)

Sheikh had been convicted of helping lure Mr Pearl to a meeting in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi in which he was kidnapped. Mr Pearl had been investigating the link between Pakistani militants and Richard C Reid, dubbed the “Shoe Bomber” after trying to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes.

The lower court’s April ruling acquitted Sheikh and three other accomplices, who had been sentenced to life in jail for their role in the plot. The lower court found Sheikh guilty on a single lesser charge of abduction, which he is also appealing.

The acquittal stunned the US government, Mr Pearl’s family and journalism advocacy groups.

“We felt like (it was) a thunderstorm that is about to reopen our pains of 2002,” Mr Pearl’s father Judea Pearl told The Associated Press. “Pakistan’s judicial system caved to either inside or outside pressure to send a message of impunity to extremist elements worldwide.”

Mr Siddiqi, said after the court hearing that there was “ample evidence” to overturn Sheikh’s appeal and return him to death row.

“There is eyewitness evidence, there is forensic evidence, there are confessional statements,” Mr Siddiqi said.

Among the confessional statements is a handwritten letter from July 19 2019 by Sheikh that acknowledged his involvement in Mr Pearl’s killing, Mr Siddiqi said. In the letter, Sheikh said his involvement in Mr Pearl’s death was “a relatively minor one”. However, Mr Siddiqi said Sheikh implicates himself in Mr Pearl’s killing with that admission.

Sheikh’s lawyer, Mahmood Shaikh, told the AP he suffered a heart attack while arguing the case in the lower court, but remained confident the acquittal would stand.

“I have no doubt in my mind,” Mr Shaikh said. He said his doctors ordered him to remain on bed rest for the next two weeks, throwing into question whether the Supreme Court hearing will happen next week.

The Sindh provincial government also is appealing Shiekh’s acquittal.

Mr Pearl, 38, of Encino, California, was abducted on January 23 2002. In Sheikh’s original trial, emails between Sheikh and Mr Pearl presented in court showed Sheikh gained Mr Pearl’s confidence sharing their experiences as both waited for the birth of their first child. Mr Pearl’s wife Marianne Pearl gave birth to a son, Adam, in May 2002.

Evidence entered into court accused Sheikh of luring Mr Pearl to his death, giving the American journalist a false sense of security as he promised to introduce him to a cleric with militant links.

Pakistani police sought to locate Mr Pearl for weeks until a video received by US diplomats showed his beheading.

The 2019 letter by Sheikh was not among the evidence heard by the lower court that in April acquitted Sheikh on a number of charges, including the most serious of the kidnapping for ransom that lead to Mr Pearl’s killing.

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