US 'alarmed' over SC order to move Omar Sheikh out of death cell

Published February 3, 2021
In this March 29, 2002 file photo, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the alleged mastermind behind Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's kidnap-slaying, appears at the court in Karachi. — AP/File
In this March 29, 2002 file photo, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the alleged mastermind behind Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's kidnap-slaying, appears at the court in Karachi. — AP/File

The United States said on Wednesday that it was "alarmed" by the Supreme Court’s order to move Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the prime accused in the 2002 killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl, from his death cell to a government rest house.

On Tuesday, the apex court directed authorities to move Sheikh from his death cell at the Karachi Central Prison to a government rest house.

The verbal order also requires the state to place his family at a rest house with transportation facilities, while the government has been directed to arrange his shifting from the jail within a couple of days.

It further said Sheikh would be kept in Karachi and would not be allowed to communicate with the outside world.

Speaking to journalists in Washington today, a spokesperson for the US State Department said: "The United States remains deeply concerned by developments in the cases of those involved in Pearl’s kidnapping and murder.

"We are alarmed by the recent order to move Sheikh and his co-conspirators from prison."

The US official recalled that on Jan 29, US State Secretary Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi discussed “how to ensure accountability for convicted terrorist Omar Sheikh and others responsible for the kidnapping and murder of US citizen and journalist Daniel Pearl”.

The State Department’s spokesperson claimed that the court’s decisions “represent an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan” but also appreciated Islamabad’s efforts to ensure that those involved in the slaying were held accountable for their actions.

“The US recognises past Pakistani actions to hold Sheikh accountable and to seek to ensure that he and his co-conspirators remain in custody,” the official said. “We also acknowledge government requests for a review of the split Jan 28 decision.”

Read: Federal govt to join review proceedings in Pearl case

On Jan 28, the apex court — by a majority of two to one — upheld the Sindh High Court's (SHC) acquittal of Sheikh and ordered his release if he was not wanted in any other case.

The court also directed that all the accused — Sheikh, Fahad Nasim Ahmed, Syed Salman Saqib and Sheikh Muhammad Adil — be released forthwith unless they were wanted in any other case.

The Sindh government and parents of the slain journalist appealed the high court’s decision, but the Supreme Court upheld the acquittal order.

Reviewing the recent developments in the case, the spokesperson for the US State Department urged the Pakistani government to continue its effort to keep Sheikh and other suspects in custody.

“We expect the Pakistani government to expeditiously review its legal options to ensure justice is served and Sheikh and his co-conspirators are not released,” the US official said.

The official also reiterated an earlier offer by Secretary Blinken and the US Justice Department to prosecute Sheikh in the United States. “We are also prepared to prosecute Sheikh in the US for his horrific crimes against the country's citizens,” the official said.

US offers to prosecute Sheikh

Last week, Blinken had once again reiterated the offer to prosecute Sheikh after his acquittal by the top court.

In his first statement on Pakistan as the US state secretary, he had said he was "deeply concerned by the SC's decision to acquit those involved in Pearl’s kidnapping and murder and any proposed action to release them".

“We are also prepared to prosecute Sheikh in the United States for his horrific crimes against an American citizen," he had said. "We are committed to securing justice for Pearl’s family and holding terrorists accountable.”

Blinken had termed the apex court's verdict as an "affront to terrorism victims everywhere" and had said that the US expected Pakistan's authorities to “expeditiously review its legal options to ensure justice is served”.

“The court’s decision is an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan. The United States recognises past Pakistani actions to hold Omar Sheikh accountable and notes that Sheikh currently remains detained under Pakistani law,” he had said.

Pearl's murder and legal action

Pearl, 38, was doing research on religious extremism in Karachi when he was abducted in January 2002. A graphic video showing his decapitation was delivered to the US consulate a month later. Subsequently, Sheikh was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to death by a trial court.

In its April 2, 2020, order, the SHC had overturned Sheikh's conviction for Pearl's murder but maintained his conviction on a lesser charge of abetting the kidnapping, for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

As Sheikh had been incarcerated since 2002, that sentence was counted as time already served by the high court. The SHC had also acquitted three other men who had been earlier sentenced to life imprisonment by a Karachi anti-terrorism court.

After their acquittal order, the provincial government placed them under 90-day detention under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) Ordinance, saying that their release posed a threat to security.

On July 1, a fresh notification under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, extended their detention by three months, which was later extended for 90 additional days.

But in December, the high court accepted a petition by the men against their continued detention and ordered their immediate release, declaring all notifications of the Sindh government related to their detention "null and void".

Following the SHC's order to release the four men, the Sindh government had filed an appeal with the Supreme Court seeking to keep them incarcerated, citing threats to national security if they were to walk free.

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