By Ayaz Gul
A court in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province ordered authorities Thursday to immediately release the British national convicted in the 2002 murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
Thursday’s ruling by the high court in Karachi, the provincial capital, canceled a temporary detention order that had prevented British-born Ahmed Omar Sheikh from leaving prison since the same court overturned his murder conviction eight months ago.
The April 2020 verdict modified Sheikh’s sentence to seven years in prison for kidnapping only, allowing him to be freed for time served. Three other men — also convicted in the case and sentenced to life in prison at the same trial 18 years ago — were acquitted.
Pakistani authorities quickly moved to halt the release of the four men, citing public safety concerns, a law often used in high-profile cases to buy time for prosecutors to file an appeal.
Thursday’s written ruling, obtained by VOA, struck down the preventive detention order, directing authorities that the four men “shall be released from jail forthwith.” It ordered authorities to not allow Sheikh and the others to leave Pakistan.
The judges also directed federal and provincial governments not to arrest or place the four men “under any prevention detention order … without the prior permission of the court.”
Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, 38 at the time of his murder, was visiting the port city of Karachi, the country’s largest, to investigate suspected links between Islamist militants and the planners of the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes on the United States. He was abducted and decapitated weeks later.
“We are deeply concerned by the reports of the December 24 ruling of Sindh High Court to release multiple terrorists responsible for the murder of Daniel Pearl,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
“We have been assured that the accused have not been released at this time,” it noted.
The statement stressed the U.S. will continue to stand with the Pearl family through this “extremely difficult process” and will be following the case closely.
Pearl’s parents and Pakistani authorities separately have appealed to the Supreme Court against the April verdict that acquitted Sheikh and the three co-accused in the case.
The top Pakistani court is scheduled to conduct the next hearing January 5, 2021.
An attorney for the Pearl family told VOA that Sheikh will be freed until the appeal is completed, but all four men will “go to jail permanently” if the family is successful in overturning the acquittal.