The Supreme Court on Monday barred the Sindh government from releasing the main accused in the Daniel Pearl murder case as it began hearing arguments in a set of appeals challenging the Sindh High Court decision.
The Sindh government as well as the parents of Pearl, who was the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) South Asia bureau chief, had filed separate appeals against the April 2 order of the Sindh High Court that had modified the death sentence of the prime accused, Ahmed Omer Saeed Sheikh, to seven-year rigorous imprisonment with a fine of Rs2 million.
Sheikh, who had already spent 18 years in prison on death row after being sentenced by an anti-terrorism court for Pearl's murder, was expected to be released after the high court verdict since his seven-year sentence was to be counted as time already served.
However, the Sindh government issued an order to detain Sheikh and four others, whose convictions had been overturned, till Sept 30.
During today's hearing, senior counsel Farooq Naek, representing the Sindh government, said that taxi driver Nasir Abbas had identified the accused in front of a magistrate during an identity parade. "Sheikh was arrested on January 13, 2002 and on April 22, 2002 charges were framed against him," he said.
He added that there were a total of 23 witnesses in the case. Amir Afzal, the receptionist at Akbar International Hotel where Sheikh and Pearl met, also identified the accused during an identity parade, he said.
"There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes," Naek said, when the court asked where the conspiracy had taken place. When Sheikh met the journalist, he used the name Bashir, Naek said, adding that he gave a fake name because his intentions were not pure.
"It is possible that the decision to kill was taken a few moments before it actually occurred," remarked Justice Yahya Afridi. Naek replied that the initial plan was to collect ransom, not assassinate the journalist.
The court also questioned how charges against Sheikh were proven when the body was never found and an autopsy was never conducted.
"Kidnapping charges were proven. The SHC should have ordered a retrial instead of overturning the death sentence," the Sindh government's lawyer replied.
When asked by the court who identified the accused, Naek reiterated that the taxi driver had identified him during an identity parade.
"The taxi driver's statement is the basis for the government's case," remarked Justice Qazi Amin. "His body was never found so how did the taxi driver identify Pearl," asked the judge.
"He identified him after looking at a picture," the lawyer replied.
The accused were acquitted on charges of murder and kidnapping for ransom, observed Justice Qazi Amin. "It looks like the high court wrapped up the matter after giving punishment only for the crime of kidnapping," he remarked.
Barring authorities from releasing Sheikh and others, and issuing notices to the parties concerned, the court adjourned the hearing until Wednesday.
Earlier in the month, the apex court had referred the appeals against overturning the main accused's death sentence to Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed with a request to fix the hearing within two weeks as his 30-day detention under the anti-terrorism law will end on Sept 30 (Wednesday).
A three-judge bench of the apex court comprising Justice Mushir Alam, Justice Manzoor Ahmed Malik and Justice Qazi Amin Ahmed had requested the CJP that if the appeals were fixed before the bench considering urgency of the matter, it could be heard for the entire day and decided.
The urgency concerns the expiry of Sheikh's detention period under Section 11 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997, which will expire on Sept 30. The convict had previously been detained under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO).
Pearl was doing research on religious extremism when he was kidnapped in Karachi in January 2002. Next month a video showing his decapitation was delivered to the US consulate, followed by the arrest of Sheikh, a Pakistani British, who was later sentenced to death by a trial court.