Pearl, the 38-year-old South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was abducted and beheaded while he was in Pakistan investigating a story in 2002 on the links between the country’s powerful spy agency ISI and al-Qaeda.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed appeals against the acquittal of British-born al-Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in the kidnapping and murder case of Pearl and ordered his release, a judgement denounced by the American journalist’s family as “a complete travesty of justice.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, during her daily news conference on Thursday, said: “The United States is outraged by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to affirm the acquittals of those responsible for Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and brutal murder which shocked the world’s conscience in 2002”.
“This decision to exonerate and release Sheikh and the other suspects is an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan. We recognise past Pakistani actions to try to hold Mr Pearl’s murderers accountable, and we do note that as of right now, Omar Sheikh remains in detention in Pakistan under national security authorities.
“But we call on the Pakistani government to expeditiously review its legal options including allowing the United States to prosecute for the brutal murder of an American citizen and journalist,” Psaki said in response to a question on the latest development in Pakistan.
Sheikh and his three aides – Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil and Salman Saqib – were convicted and sentenced in the abduction and murder case of Pearl in Karachi in 2002.
The United States, she said, is committed to securing justice for Pearl’s family and holding terrorists anywhere accountable for their heinous crimes.
Reacting to the acquittal, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken, in a strongly worded statement, urged Pakistan to explore all legal options to ensure that the killers of Pearl are brought to justice.
“The United States is deeply concerned by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to acquit those involved in Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder and any proposed action to release them,” he said.
Blinken said: “Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh was indicted in the United States in 2002 for hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, resulting in the murder of Pearl, the South Asia Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, as well as the 1994 kidnapping of another United States citizen in India”.
The court’s decision is an affront to terrorism victims everywhere, including in Pakistan, he said.
“We expect the Pakistani government to expeditiously review its legal options to ensure justice is served. We take note of the Attorney General’s statement that he intends to seek review and recall of the decision. We are also prepared to prosecute Sheikh in the United States for his horrific crimes against an American citizen,” Blinken said.
The United States is committed to securing justice for Pearl’s family and holding terrorists accountable, he said.
Pearl’s murder took place three years after Sheikh, along with Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, was released by India in 1999 and given safe passage to Afghanistan in exchange for the nearly 150 passengers of hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814.
He was serving a prison term in India for kidnappings of Western tourists in the country.
The beheading of the American journalist in 2002 had grabbed international headlines.
Pakistan Supreme Court ordered that three others, who had been sentenced to life in prison for their part in Pearl’s kidnapping and death, also be freed.
Ruth and Judea Pearl – the parents of Pearl – criticised the judgment that would endanger the lives of journalists everywhere, said Faisal Siddiqi, the Pearl family lawyer.
In April 2020, a two-judge Sindh High Court bench commuted the death sentence of 46-year-old Sheikh to seven years imprisonment. The court also acquitted his three aides who were serving life terms in the case – almost two decades after they were found guilty and jailed.
The Sindh government and family of Pearl filed petitions in the apex court, challenging the high court verdict.
The US has been mounting pressure on Pakistan, demanding justice for Pearl.
Last month, the US said it is ready to take custody of Sheikh, asserting that Washington will not allow him to evade justice.
Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson said the US is deeply concerned by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s ruling affirming the acquittal of individuals convicted by a Pakistani trial court.
“The release of those involved would be an affront to Daniel Pearl’s family, to other terrorism victims around the world, and to the cause of justice,” Wilkinson said.
In a tweet, Congressman Brad Sherman said: “The killers of Daniel Pearl go free. And Dr. Afridi, who helped the US get Osama Bin Laden, rots in jail.”
“We are deeply disappointed that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acquitted and ordered the release of Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh, despite overwhelming evidence of Sheikh’s involvement in the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, which led directly to his murder,” said Steven Butler, Committee to Protect Journalist’s Asia program coordinator.