THE Supreme Court’s decision to order the release of Omar Saeed Sheikh, the principal accused in the Daniel Pearl murder case, has come as a blow to not just the family of the slain journalist but also to proponents of free press everywhere. By a majority of two to one, the apex court extended the benefit of the doubt to the accused, thereby removing a key hurdle in his release.

Although a review petition has been filed, at the moment, there is little preventing Sheikh — arguably one of the most dangerous militants — from being a free man. Given the ghastly nature of the crime he has been accused of, and the long and painful fight of the Pearl family for justice, it is no surprise that both his family and the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have condemned the decision in strong words. Dubbing Sheikh’s release an “affront to terrorism victims everywhere”, Blinken has urged a review with the hope that justice will be done.

The fact that Sheikh, a notorious man who is allegedly involved in some high-profile crimes that transcend borders, will soon be free is yet another startling chapter in his cryptic life story. The British-born militant who dropped out of the prestigious London School of Economics and disappeared into the Balkans — only to resurface later in India where he was arrested then freed in a hostage exchange — has been all too lucky in his trysts with danger.

He is believed to have been a part of the conspiracy to assassinate Gen Musharraf, and apparently was also the person who called then president Asif Zardari, impersonating the Indian external affairs minister from inside his prison cell. He is accused of kidnapping four foreign tourists in India-held Kashmir as well as transferring money to a militant involved in the 9/11 attacks. The fact that this man has always been a step ahead of the authorities is mind-boggling. Perhaps the world will never learn what his true role was in Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder. But despite that, there are enough signs that he is a dangerous man who should remain behind bars.

The entire case points to the sorry state of Pakistan’s law-enforcement agencies that have failed to produce convincing evidence that holds in a court of law. The fact that an individual accused of endless criminal acts has time and again hoodwinked the authorities is an indictment of the investigating agencies in the country.

Not only should the state seriously reflect on this failure, it must also tell the world who the real murderers of Daniel Pearl are if Sheikh and three others have been acquitted. If it fails to do so, it will send a message that there is no justice for those who harm journalists in Pakistan, and that their killers continue to roam free.

Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2021

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