Thursday’s ruling by the Sindh High Court that overturned the conviction of Omar Saeed Sheikh, and three others, of murdering American journalist Daniel Pearl, for lack of evidence is scandalous in its utter disregard for criminal jurisprudence. The court observed that no evidence had been brought before it by the prosecution to link any of the four — the others being Fahad Saleem, Syed Salman Saqib and Sheikh Muhammad Adil, whose convictions were similarly overturned — to the killing of Pearl. This is sophistry at its best and speaks eloquently of the systematic way the case has been diluted from the beginning. Pearl, then South Asian Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal , was abducted in Karachi in January 2002, in an operation managed by Omar Sheikh, who had demonstrated links to, among others, Pakistani militant groups as well as to al-Qaeda. Pearl had been baited while investigating links between al-Qaeda and the British ‘Shoe Bomber’ Richard Reid, who tried, in mid-air on a flight, to light explosives in his shoes on December 21, 2001, just two months previously. Many ransom demands later, a video was handed over on February 21, 2002, wherein Pearl was shown being methodically beheaded with a knife. When the Americans began to squeeze Pakistan to go after the perpetrators, Omar Sheikh ‘surrendered’ to Ijaz Shah, a former Intelligence Chief, then Home Secretary of Punjab; he is now the country’s Interior Minister. Even more curiously, it was after many days that Sheikh’s arrest was shown.
The Sindh government has extended Sheikh’s detention and the provincial prosecutor has said that the High Court ruling will be appealed in the Supreme Court . But these moves could be aimed at blunting growing international opprobrium, including at the FATF, the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, that has already put Pakistan on its ‘grey list’, and where India has said it will bring this matter for discussion. It is likely that once the pressure eases, Sheikh and his cohorts will be let off as has happened with others before them. Pakistan’s record of leniency on this has been as consistent as it has been alarming. In 2015, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, who supervised the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, was released from detention, and remains free. Just last month, Pakistan’s Economic Affairs Minister Hammad Azhar revealed that Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar had conveniently gone “missing” along with his family. Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar had been released in exchange for hostages of Flight IC 814 in December 1999 into Taliban/ISI custody in Kandahar. Pakistan needs to be persuaded to move beyond tokenism and demonstrate a much higher order of commitment to deal with such terrorists than it has hitherto shown.