Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was the principal accused in the murder case of American journalist Daniel Pearl before his acquittal by the Sindh High Court and subsequently the Supreme Court, has been shifted from Karachi to Lahore due to "security concerns", the Punjab Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) said on Monday.
At the last hearing of the case on Feb 2, 2021, the Supreme Court had ordered authorities to move Sheikh from his death cell at the Karachi Central Prison to a government rest house with the provision of facilities for a normal life, albeit without access to the outside world through telephone, internet, etc.
The directives were issued after Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan and Sindh Advocate General Salman Talibuddin had expressed concern that if Sheikh was released, he would either be taken away or may disappear.
On Monday, a CTD spokesperson said Sheikh had been handed over by the Sindh Police to the Punjab CTD "in view of security concerns".
Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani heritage, has been shifted to a CTD cell in Lahore, the spokesperson added.
On January 28, the Supreme 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 other 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 had appealed the high court’s decision, but the apex court upheld the acquittal order.
The shifting of Sheikh from Karachi comes as the Supreme Court is set to resume on March 25 the hearing of the Sindh government’s petition involving Sheikh.
A three-judge SC bench will take up the Sindh government’s application against the Dec 24, 2020, order of the SHC declaring as illegal the June 29, 2020, provincial government notification of placing all the accused on the IV Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 1997, with an observation that none of the accused were “enemy aliens” as contemplated under Article 10 (9) of the Constitution and as such their detention under this provision was found to be illegal and unlawful.
Pearl's murder and legal action
Wall Street Journal journalist 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 earlier been sentenced to life imprisonment by a Karachi anti-terrorism court.
After their acquittal order, the provincial government placed them in 90-day detention under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) Ordinance, saying 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 by another 90 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.