Verdict caused reservations, says Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
Faced with strong criticism from the United States and a possible threat of India raising the case at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Pakistan on April 4 said the acquittal of Omar Ahmed Sheikh Saeed (Omar Sheikh) and three others for the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl will be appealed.
On April 2, the Sindh province court pronounced on Omar Sheikh’s appeal of his 2002 conviction for the kidnapping and brutal murder of Pearl that year, saying the prosecution had failed to produce “strong unimpeachable corroborative evidence” in the case.
The U.S. State Department said the verdict was an “affront to victims of terror everywhere”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the U.S. would continue to demand justice for Pearl’s murder. “This decision caused reservations,” Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said on April 4. The U.S.’s concerns were “natural”, he noted. “The Sindh Home Department has decided to detain the accused for 90 days under the Public Safety Act,” he said.
In another statement, the Imran Khan government said it was “concerned” about the verdict. “Government of Pakistan reiterates its commitment to follow due process under the laws of the country to bring terrorists to task,” a statement issued by the Pakistan Information Department said.
The Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment on the case. However, diplomats and security officials said the acquittal and Pakistan’s subsequent actions would only open a new can of worms in the case of Omar Sheikh, a British national, who was arrested for kidnapping and terror in India in 1994. He was released along with Masood Azhar after the IC-814 hijacking.
Omar Sheikh, who was believed to have worked closely with al-Qaeda before and after 9/11, was being investigated for wiring $100,000 to 9/11 attacker Mohammad Atta. He was in touch with Osama Bin Laden and had hosted the latter’s wife post 9/11.
Former diplomat Vivek Katju said, “Pakistan’s approach to terrorism is revealed by the shoddiness with which they prosecuted Omar Sheikh in such a high profile case. Much will depend on how it manages the appeals in the higher courts now.”
Apart from the loopholes in the prosecution’s case, some also raised the question of the timing of the verdict, and possible links to the current Minister of Interior Brig (retd.) Ijaz Shah, a former Intelligence Bureau chief. In 2002, with a manhunt declared for him in the Pearl case, Omar Sheikh had reportedly sought refuge with Mr. Shah, and then “surrendered” to him.
“The way Omar Sheikh was treated and the fact that despite the death sentence no further action was taken against him in the case until now shows that Pakistan’s intelligence establishment never lets go of its assets,” Tilak Devasher, member of the National Security Advisor Board (NSAB), told The Hindu. “This is a message to both their own assets and to foreign governments. It seems obvious that his links to Ijaz Shah played a role in his acquittal.”
There remains the question of what would happen if Omar Sheikh is released once international outrage dies down. The U.S. indicted him in 2002 for Pearl murder and also the 1994 kidnapping of U.S. national Bella Nuss in India, but hasn’t followed up on its extradition demands with Pakistan since then.
Omar Sheikh was never included in the United Nations Security Council 1267 sanctions list for terrorists aligned to al-Qaeda. Nor is he on the U.S.’s most wanted list. And despite the fact that India has periodically sent Pakistan lists of the most wanted that include Masood Azhar and six men accused of the IC-814 hijacking, Omar Sheikh isn’t on New Delhi’s list either.
“Since Omar Sheikh was in custody since 2002, and the focus was on active terrorists like Masood Azhar and Hafeez Saeed, it is possible, that he was not on the radar. That may change now,” said a government official on April 4.
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