EIGHTEEN years ago — on Feb 14, 2002 to be precise — in a packed-to-capacity courtroom a young suspected militant, identified as British-born Ahmed Omer Saeed Sheikh, better known as Shaikh Omar, was produced in custody before anti-terrorism Judge Arshad Noor Khan by the Karachi police, who sought his remand for interrogation in the abduction of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl.

Police had claimed to have arrested Shaikh Omar in Lahore and a team of investigators brought him to Karachi where a kidnapping case was registered.

I was among a handful of journalists who had succeeded in making their way into the courtroom. None of us were expecting this since remand proceedings usually take place inside the judge’s chamber instead of an open court.

The judge asked the chief investigator, SSP Manzoor Mughal, what crime the suspect had committed. “The accused does jihad [mulzim jihad karta hai],” the SSP mumbled to which the judge expressed surprise and asked since when jihad had become a crime.

The court was also informed that three suspects — Salman Saqib, Shaikh Adil and Fahad Naseem — held earlier in the Pearl kidnap case had named Shaikh Omar as the main architect and financier so his remand was necessary for further investigation, holding of an identification parade and recovery of Mr Pearl.

In the meantime, the judge heard Shaikh Omar, who was muffled but the judge ordered him to show his face despite a strong objection by the chief prosecutor. In a calm and composed manner, a clean-shaven Omar told the court in English that he was involved in the kidnapping and that he did not want to defend.

He went on to say that he was not arrested by police as he himself surrendered before authorities a week ago — Feb 5, 2002 — to save his family from trouble and that he had his own reasons to do whatever he had done.

But what made everyone sitting in the courtroom that day stunned was his revelation about the abducted journalist. “As far as I understand he is dead,” he said about Pearl who was then thought to be alive.

The judge asked him some more questions regarding whether he was tortured in custody, etc, and remanded him in police custody for over a week. The written order, however, did not mention his statement, viewed as a voluntary confession by the chief prosecutor.

But the news was out. Foreign wires and newspapers sent dispatches with Shaikh Omar’s quotes, forcing top authorities to discredit his statement the same day.

For Shaikh Omar, the case was concluded the moment he confessed to his involvement in Pearl’s kidnapping. However, upon his family’s insistence — and taking advantage of the lacuna that his statement was not part of the court record — he along with three others pleaded not guilty when an antiterrorism court indicted them for kidnap and murder.

The case against all the four was so weak that the government had to change judges, moved the trial from Karachi to Hyderabad where a judge convicted them in a jail trial that concluded in five months — on July 15, 2002 — after Shaikh Omar’s first court appearance.

All this was done in the name of justice, although senior government, intelligence and police officials of that time knew that none of the four men were involved in actually killing the US journalist. They even had in custody many persons who either witnessed the killing, disposed (buried) the body or were part of the planning. But they were never charged because it would have weakened the case of prosecution against the four men.

After their conviction, I remember asking a defence lawyer whether he expected a favourable high court decision on their appeals. He said: “Time is not right ... they [the appellants] have to wait long.” And the wait is finally over, although it took more than 18 years to get relief from the high court that acquitted on Thursday Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Shaikh Adil. Shaikh Omar’s death sentence has been set aside and he is awarded seven-year imprisonment on charge of kidnapping.

Over the years, law enforcement agencies killed some suspected militants they said were wanted in the Pearl murder case in alleged encounters. In 2007, transcripts of senior Al Qaeda figure Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, who was arrested in 2003 from Rawalpindi and handed over to the US which is still keeping him in Guantanamo Bay prison, released by the Pentagon claimed that he was personally responsible for the gruesome murder of the US journalist.

But, after 18 years we are still in the dark about who really killed Pearl and whether he/they would ever be brought to justice and by whom. Someone has to answer this question, especially after today’s verdict.

Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2020