A LANDMARK conviction unravelled in the Sindh High Court on Thursday.
As a result, one of the most dangerous and wily militants the world has yet seen may soon walk free.
Citing lack of evidence, the appellate bench overturned the death penalty handed down in 2002 to Omar Saeed Sheikh as the main accused in the Daniel Pearl case.
However, while acquitting him and three co-accused on the charges of murder and kidnapping for ransom, it found Sheikh guilty of abducting the American journalist and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment.
Given the 18 years he has already spent in jail, he could be released within days.
Pearl’s abduction and beheading in January 2002, a few months after 9/11, is a grisly signpost in the history of militancy in Pakistan.
It catapulted local terrorist networks into the global ‘war on terror’, and not only because of the victim’s nationality: the operation that culminated in Pearl’s murder was an early example of the nexus between homegrown extremists and Al Qaeda, the foremost international terrorist outfit at the time.
Moreover, his death marked the beginning of an open season on journalists reporting on militancy.
The conviction of at least some of the perpetrators in the Daniel Pearl case was a rare exception to that impunity — until now.
Suffice it to say, there were many reasons for police and intelligence agencies to build a watertight case against the individuals involved — 27, according to details unearthed by two international, highly regarded investigative journalism bodies.
As it turned out, only four, including Sheikh, were eventually charged and convicted.
Some were killed in ‘police encounters’ while others remained free.
Over the course of nearly two decades, several names surfaced as being part of the conspiracy — among them the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Yet the prosecution went nowhere, seemingly suspended between inaction and confusion — if not worse.
The appeal hearings brought to light a shamefully flawed investigation including forced confessions and possible evidence tampering.
Such malpractices are nothing out of the ordinary here, except in this instance Pakistan’s reputation for acting against militancy is at stake.
The man on the verge of achieving his freedom has time and again demonstrated an implacable determination to act on his extremist convictions.
Aside from the Daniel Pearl case, Sheikh is also suspected of having played a role in planning one of the assassination attempts against Gen Musharraf.
Indeed, so cunning and resourceful is he that even from behind bars, he attempted to heighten Pakistan-India tensions in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks by making hoax calls to Pakistan’s then president and chief of army staff.
An individual like Omar Saeed Sheikh is a danger to state and society.
The government must appeal against the Sindh High Court’s decision.
And it must bring to book all those responsible for Daniel Pearl’s terrible fate.
Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2020