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Omar Saeed Sheikh’s acquittal in Daniel Pearl case and implications

By Muhammad Amir Rana

In a surprise verdict, the Sindh High Court (SHC) has overturned the murder conviction of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was found guilty of the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, and has sentenced him to seven years in jail for the lesser charge of kidnapping. As expected, the SHC decision received global condemnation and the media rights groups overwhelmingly rejected the decision and declared it an act of impunity for the culprits who killed a journalist. The US State Department has also condemned the verdict.

It seems that the government was not expecting the decision, which had been lingering on for the last eighteen years; many judges were also found reluctant to hear the appeal of convicts. The government has decided to file an appeal against the decision in Supreme Court of Pakistan. The Sindh provincial government has meanwhile taken the convict into custody for three months on the ground that he could cause some law and order problem.

The decision shows that the government is not willing to release Ahmed Omar and other culprits soon. Even the government is bound to follow the SHC decision if he is not involved in other criminal cases despite the appeal in superior court.

It is not certain how Omar has managed his suspected relationship with the militants and what kind of threat he can pose. During his prison time, two news items had brought him into the limelight: first, when he made hoax calls from his Hyderabad prison cell to President Asif Ali Zardari pretending Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee threatening war after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008; and second, when two members of the banned terrorist group Lashkar e Jhangvi escaped from Central Jail Karachi in December 2017 and investigators showed suspicions of his involvement. Precisely, the second incident reflects he may still be maintaining a relationship with the militants. However, his acquittal would be good news for the militants of different brands in the country who are under stress and looking for charismatic leaders who can unite and inspire them.

By all means, this was not good news for Pakistan, which has been facing a concerted pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in recent years. Pakistan’s last compliance report, which was submitted last January, had projected that the country was progressing well to improve its capacity of prosecution in terrorism-related cases.

Ahmed Omar’s acquittal can make Pakistan’s FATF challenge more complex. Certainly, the verdict has exposed the prosecution capacity of law enforcement agencies preparing the terrorism-related cases, as the weakest link in the case was the witnesses, who all belonged to the police departments. The weak prosecution capabilities and judicial processes had also contributed in the establishment of the military courts back in 2015.