ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's Supreme Court on Monday accepted an appeal by the family of slain American journalist Daniel Pearl seeking to keep a British-born Pakistani man on death row over the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter.
The court delayed until next week hearing the appeal over the lower-court acquittal of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who had been on death row since his conviction in 2002 over Pearl's killing.
The Supreme Court ordered Sheikh to remain in custody but Faisal Siddiqi, the lawyer for Pearl's family, told The Associated Press on Monday the court will decide next week whether Sheikh will remain imprisoned during the course of the appeal, which could be years.
The government has argued against Sheikh's release, despite his acquittal in April, saying it would endanger the public. But the Supreme Court will rule on that next week, Siddiqi said. He said Pakistan's top court expressed concern about keeping Sheikh locked up even though he stands acquitted.
“The appeal could take years,” said Siddiqi. “Today the court admitted the appeal and next week it will decide if Sheikh stays in jail” until the appeal is decided. The family is arguing for Sheikh's continued incarceration.
Sheikh had been convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi in which he was kidnapped. Pearl had been investigating the link between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, dubbed the “Shoe Bomber” after trying to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes.
The lower court’s April ruling acquitted Sheikh and three other accomplices, who had been sentenced to life in jail for their role in the plot. The lower court found Sheikh guilty on a single lesser charge of abduction, which he is also appealing.
The acquittal stunned the U.S. government, Pearl's family and journalism advocacy groups.
“We felt like (it was) a thunderstorm that is about to reopen our pains of 2002,” Pearl's father Judea Pearl told The Associated Press in an email Monday. “Pakistan’s judicial system caved to either inside or outside pressure to send a message of impunity to extremist elements worldwide.”
Following Monday's court hearing, the Pearl family's lawyer, Siddiqi, said there was “ample evidence” to overturn Sheikh's appeal and return him to death row.
“There is eyewitness evidence, there is forensic evidence, there are confessional statements,” Siddiqi said.
Among the confessional statements is a handwritten, July 19, 2019 letter by Sheikh that acknowledged his involvement in Pearl’s killing, Siddiqi said. In the letter, Sheikh said his involvement in Pearl’s death was “a relatively minor one.” However, Siddiqi said Sheikh implicates himself in Pearl’s killing with that admission.
Sheikh's lawyer, Mahmood Shaikh, told the AP he suffered a heart attack while arguing the case in the lower court, but remained confident the acquittal would stand.
“I have no doubt in my mind," Shaikh said. He said his doctors ordered him to remain on bed rest for the next two weeks, throwing into question whether the Supreme Court hearing will happen next week.
The Sindh provincial government also is appealing Shiekh's acquittal.
Pearl, 38, of Encino, California, was abducted Jan. 23, 2002. In Sheikh's original trial, emails between Sheikh and Pearl presented in court showed Sheikh gained Pearl’s confidence sharing their experiences as both waited for the birth of their first child. Pearl’s wife Marianne Pearl gave birth to a son, Adam, in May 2002.
Evidence entered into court accused Sheikh of luring Pearl to his death, giving the American journalist a false sense of security as he promised to introduce him to a cleric with militant links.
Pakistani police sought to locate Pearl for weeks until a video received by U.S. diplomats showed his beheading.
The 2019 letter by Sheikh was not among the evidence heard by the lower court that in April acquitted Sheikh on a number of charges, including the most serious of the kidnapping for ransom that lead to Pearl's slaying.
“The 2019 letter is only one (piece of) evidence to something that we knew all along, without any doubt, that Sheikh lured Danny into the abduction trap which led to his murder,” Pearl's father Judea said. “We had copies of a long email exchange he had with Danny, using a pseudonym ‘Bashir,’ was which was downloaded from Danny’s computer.”
An investigation by students of Georgetown University in Washington implicated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, in Pearl's death. Mohammed has been in U.S. custody on Guantanamo Bay since his arrest in Pakistan in March 2003.
Pearl's father said he has received assurances from the U.S. State Department that it was closely following Sheikh's acquittal and subsequent appeals. The trial's outcome could impact relations between the two countries and again paint Pakistan as a haven for militants and extremists, he said.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that it is watching the case closely and “stands with the Pearl family during this arduous and painfull process."
The Pearl family launched a foundation in Daniel's name following the killing, said his father.
“We keep Danny’s memory alive through the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which pursues his life-long mission of spreading friendship and understanding through journalism, dialogue and music,” he said.
Associated Press journalist Mohammad Yousaf in Islamabad contributed to this report.