In light of a recent court ruling and the disclosure of new information, justice for an American journalist murdered in Pakistan 18 years ago seems an unlikely prospect. Ashis Ray reports
Last month the Sindh High Court in Pakistan reduced the death penalty previously handed down by a trial court to Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who had been found guilty of killing Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in 2002, to seven years imprisonment for kidnapping. Since Sheikh had already been in detention for 18 years (and it’s rumoured that, having been an asset of the Pakistani spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI], he has enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence in jail), he was now a free man. However, the Sindh government ordered his incarceration for another three months, and has now appealed to Pakistan’s Supreme Court against the Sindh High Court order.
The Americans had applied considerable pressure. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted on Twitter: ‘The United States will not forget Daniel Pearl. We continue to honour his legacy as a courageous journalist and demand justice for his brutal murder.’ Pearl’s father Judea, a California-based computer scientist, tweeted: ‘It is a mockery of justice’, while Reporters Sans Frontières condemned what it called the court’s ‘incoherent decision’, describing it as ‘a shocking symbol of impunity for crimes of violence against journalists’.
Pearl had been posted to Mumbai as the Journal’s South Asia bureau chief. In January 2002, he went missing in Karachi while probing a possible association between Islamists in that port city and a British terrorist, Richard Reid, branded the ‘shoe bomber’ after he hid bombs in his footwear to blow up a passenger plane. Prosecuting lawyers maintained Sheikh enticed Pearl into a meeting with an Islamic cleric. About a month later, a gruesome video depicting Pearl’s beheading was delivered to the US consulate in Karachi. In July of the same year an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan convicted Sheikh of the crime.
Sheikh, now 46, was born in London and grew up in the British capital, where he went to a private school. He thereafter studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), but didn’t complete his degree, following an escapade to aid persecuted Muslims in Bosnia. In 1994, he infiltrated into Indian-controlled Kashmir to kidnap six British and American tourists in a Pakistani jihadi operation. He was tracked down and captured in Delhi, but was released in 1999 in an exchange (along with Masood Azhar, leader of the terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed) with passengers held hostage in a Pakistani hijack of an Indian Airlines plane.
General Pervez Musharraf, who was president of Pakistan at the time of Pearl’s demise, recorded in his autobiography In the Line of Fire that Sheikh was recruited by the British secret service while at the LSE and despatched to the Balkans, but subsequently turned rogue or became a ‘double agent’. He did not specify who his second employer was. The ISI, reportedly, indirectly paid for his lawyers when he was charged in India with kidnapping the western tourists.
But, contrary to Sheikh’s conviction, Washington’s Georgetown University produced an exhaustive investigative report in a journalistic exercise led by a former colleague of Pearl at the Journal, Asra Nomani, Mumbai-born but of Pakistani origin. Entitled The Pearl Project, the report reached an alternative conclusion. Pearl and his French broadcaster wife Mariane were staying at Nomani’s rented house in Karachi’s Zamzama Street when Pearl left in a taxi for his fateful meeting, never to return. Published in 2010, the report stated that American investigators, based on ‘vein analysis’ – a method of biometric identification – believed the murder was committed by the al-Qaeda mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, also a Pakistani, who was being held by US authorities at Guantanamo Bay. The UK’s Guardian disclosed: ‘Muhammad confessed to the murder in 2007, but lawyers said his testimony was tainted by torture and he has not been charged.’
The Pearl Project claimed Sheikh crafted Pearl’s kidnapping, but then handed him over to al-Qaeda. It indicated that the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) confirmed Mohammad committed the horrific crime, which was filmed by his nephew Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, also an inmate at Guantanamo. Nomani revealed in Washingtonian magazine that Mariane communicated to her as early as 2003 that Mohammad had confessed to killing her husband. She is said to have indicated that Condoleezza Rice, then the US National Security Adviser, told her so. Nomani further professed that in 2007 the US administration released a transcript of a military hearing at Guantanamo which noted Muhammad as stating: ‘I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan.’
But regardless of who actually murdered Pearl or what the punishment for Sheikh should be, Pakistani writer Ayesha Siddiqa’s take on the Sindh High Court verdict is intriguing. Siddiqa is a research associate at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and author of Military Inc., a book on her country’s armed forces. Writing in The Print, she revealed that her conversations with the Karachi jail superintendent in 2012 and, earlier, with a former Director-General of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency suggested Sheikh was confident he would neither be hanged nor handed over to the Americans.
Siddiqa also echoed what Indian intelligence once shared with Reuters, that ‘Sheikh is also reputed to have wired US$100,000 on behalf of ISI DG General Mehmood Ahmed to one of the hijackers of the World Trade Center attack (9/11), Mohammad Atta. Interestingly, this detail was not mentioned by the 9/11 Commission Report, yet was discussed in different publications around the world. Dennis Lormel, director of the FBI’s financial crimes unit also confirmed it.’
In respect of the Sindh High Court acquitting Sheikh of murder, Siddiqa further asserted: ‘It looks very possible from the turn of events in 2020 that someone in the Pakistani state system was eager to let Sheikh go… There is absolutely no mention of the fact that he surrendered himself to the current (Pakistani) interior minister, Ijaz Shah, who was then the head of the Intelligence Bureau in the Musharraf government… It was almost as if the case was deliberately set up to fail.’
And she continued: ‘Notwithstanding absence of evidence, it is also a fact that one of the judges in this case, K.K. Agha, is facing an inquiry by the Supreme Court Judicial Council, which opens up the bench to manipulation… Could it be that the more powerful segments of the state thought it possible to let Sheikh go, as has happened with his mentor, Masood Azhar?’