INTERNATIONAL

Pak. media raises doubts over Sheikh's statement on Pearl's death

ISLAMABAD, FEB. 15. The twists and turns in the case related to the abduction of the American journalist, Daniel Pearl, from Karachi, read like a fiction. A section of the Pakistani media has raised doubts on whether, in his confession before the judge on Thursday, the main suspect, Omar Sheikh, talked of Pearl's death.

Another section of the press has reported that Sheikh, in the course of his interrogation, named Mansur Hasnain, main suspect in the December 1999 hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar, as the brain behind the abduction.

The News, quoted the judge, Arshad Noor Khan, as having said that he had not heard Sheikh say anything about Pearl's death. In a detailed account of the drama inside the courtroom, the daily quoted Mr. Khan as telling a group of reporters in his chamber that neither he had heard Sheikh say anything about Pearl's killing nor was there a mention of any such statement by Sheikh in the court order.

``You may, however, write anything you have heard him say,'' he was quoted as saying. The paper said the Advocate-General, Sindh, Raja Qureshi, who led the prosecution team in the court, also denied that Sheikh had said Pearl was dead.

The confusion over what actually transpired inside the court appears to have been confounded, following the Advocate-General's plea that ``all the irrelevant people'' be ordered to leave before Sheikh was produced in the court. Barring five journalists, all the others left.

The Dawn said Sheikh told the court in fluent English, in a low voice, that, in his view, Pearl was dead and that he did not want to defend himself. ``I want to make it clear that I have my own reason,'' the suspect said.

Sheikh also reportedly told Mr. Khan that police did not arrest him _ he surrendered to the authorities on February 5 ``to save my family from harassment.'' Asked by the judge if he was maltreated or tortured in police custody, Sheikh, according to the paper, said: ``Karachi police is better than the police of any other province in respect of maltreatment.''

Sheikh said he had deposed before the court of his free will. ``I understand that the U.S. is asking for my extradition.'' And the judge told him that ``I would not be influenced by anyone.''

After hearing Sheikh, Mr. Khan remanded him to police custody till February 25. A short order issued by the judge has not made any mention of Sheikh telling the court about Pearl's death.

The order said ``... heard Raja Qureshi, the learned Advocate-General. Accused Ahmed Umer Saeed Sheikh, son of Saeed Ahmed Sheikh, is present in police custody. He states that Karachi police is better than the police of any other province in the matter of maltreatment.

``He, however, has not specifically stated that he has been maltreated by police. The Advocate-General states that the identification parade of the accused is to be held before the competent magistrate and that the abductee, who is a journalist of the Wall Street Journal, is to be recovered on the lead of the accused and also weapons are to be recovered. As such, the remand in police custody is very material for the purpose of the investigation.

``The accused has been produced with muffled face and Raja Qureshi objected that he may not be unmuffled unless all the irrelevant people present in the court are sent outside the court. The suspect also prayed the court to provide him medical treatment.''

Police `discover' 1999 hijacker

In another report, The News has said police had identified Hasnain as the main suspect behind the kidnapping. He plotted the abduction with Hasnain, senior member of the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad. The suspicion was based on the reported confession by Sheikh.

Quoting top investigators, the daily said though Sheikh referred to Hasnain as Hyder alias Mansur Siddiqi, police had ``discovered'' that he was none other than Hasnain.

In exchange for the freedom of the passengers on board the hijacked flight, India released Omar Sheikh, Masood Azhar and Ibrahim Zargar. ``Because of that event, Sheikh owes his life to Mansur Hasnain alias Hyder alias Imtiaz Siddiqi,'' the investigators reportedly said.

Police had raided Hasnain's residence in Toba Tek Singh district of Pakistan's Punjab province. Some of his relatives had also been detained.

The paper said besides indicating Hasnain's involvement, Sheikh also provided police with a graphic account of his involvement in laying a trap for Pearl, introduced to him by Hashim Qadir alias Arif, a wanted `jehadi' activist. Hashim, who was initially considered the main suspect in the case, was presumed dead after his family told police two weeks ago that he was killed while fighting the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But Sheikh ``obliged'' his interrogators by revealing that Hashim was alive and had spoken to him on his cell phone on January 31.

`Room 114, Akbar Hotel and cold coffee'

Sheikh reportedly told his interrogators that Hashim had arranged for an undercover meeting with Pearl in room number 114, Akbar International Hotel, Rawalpindi. ``It was a great meeting, we ordered cold coffee and club sandwiches and had a great chit-chat.

``We had nothing personal against Pearl, because of his hyperactivity he caught our interest,'' Sheikh is reported to have told his interrogators. Pearl was abducted after Sheikh was enraged over reports of forced shaving of the beards of Muslim prisoners by American soldiers and the inhuman treatment meted out to them in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Sheikh had shaved his beard and changed his look by wearing dark glasses to meet Pearl in January. His personal role was restricted to planning and winning ``Daniel's'' trust, while the actual kidnapping was carried out by Hasnain.

`Dad is dead'

Sheikh had told police that he had drafted two e-mails and taken Daniel's pictures with a digital camera. He had received a coded message from Hasnain saying abbaji ka intiqal ho gaya hai (Dad has expired), meaning Pearl was killed.

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