ISLAMABAD—The Pakistani authorities were seeking new legal means to continue to detain the man convicted in 2002 as the mastermind of the kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, officials said, after a court Thursday ordered the man’s release.
The court in the southern city of Karachi ruled that Omar Sheikh be freed from a temporary detention order that had kept him in jail since the same court overturned his conviction in April. The court also directed Thursday that he can’t be detained again without its permission, the judgment said.
After Thursday’s court ruling, it was unclear if Mr. Sheikh, a British national, would actually be set free.
The Pakistani authorities have been fighting the release in court since the Karachi court in April set aside the death sentence handed down to Mr. Sheikh for terrorism, kidnapping for ransom, and murder, downgrading it to the lesser crime of kidnapping, saying there were discrepancies in the evidence. As kidnapping carries a maximum of seven years in jail, and Mr. Sheikh had already been locked up for 18 years at that point, he was eligible for release.
A senior legal official, Faiz Shah, the prosecutor general for the southern province of Sindh, where the case was heard Thursday, said Thursday that Mr. Sheikh would remain behind bars. He said that an earlier ruling by the Supreme Court would be used to ensure that.
“He will be detained,” said Mr. Shah.
Pakistan, which faces possible international financial sanctions over lax controls on terrorist groups in the country, has been embarrassed by the resurfacing of the Pearl case, international relations experts say. Pakistani ministers expressed shock at the April ruling, while adding that the courts operate independently of the government.
The Pearl family had decried the April ruling as a “mockery of justice,” while a U.S. State Department official had said the overturning of the convictions for Mr. Pearl’s killing was “an affront to victims of terrorism everywhere.”
“The Pearl execution was a seminal event that would shape U.S. perceptions of Pakistan for many years,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, an independent think tank in Washington. “Islamabad should have a strong incentive to craft a successful appeal that reverses this court order. This is especially true with Pakistan already under international pressure to crack down on terror networks, and at a moment when Islamabad is trying to improve its image abroad.”
Three accomplices who were sentenced to life in prison at the same 2002 trial had their convictions completely overturned in the April ruling. The court found discrepancies in much of the evidence, and said it couldn’t find any evidence to link the four men to the actual murder.
After that April ruling, Mr. Sheikh and the three others remained in prison after Pakistani authorities used emergency detention powers. On Thursday, the judges had ruled that the use of those powers wasn’t justified in this case, the accused’s lawyer, Mahmood Sheikh, said, adding that his client isn’t allowed to leave the country.
The lawyer said he expected Mr. Sheikh to be freed this week, along with three accused accomplices.
“It is a very lucid, explicit order,” said the lawyer.
The authorities and the Pearl family have separately appealed against the April overturning of Mr. Sheikh’s conviction to the Supreme Court. The next hearing in that separate case is due in early January.
Mr. Pearl, then the Journal’s bureau chief for South Asia, was reporting on militant networks in Pakistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was kidnapped in Karachi in January 2002 and killed days later. His beheading, which was videotaped, created headlines around the world. Mr. Sheikh was convicted of the crime within six months of the killing.
“Time has not erased the pain or outrage we feel that Danny Pearl, a talented journalist and beloved colleague, was kidnapped and brutally murdered simply for doing his job,” said Matt Murray, editor in chief of the Journal. “We continue to demand justice in his case, and we honor his memory by fighting for journalists to be able to do their important jobs safely everywhere, without fear of reprisal.”
The Journal’s publisher, Dow Jones & Co., Inc., a unit of News Corp, is contributing to the legal fees for the family’s appeal.
Omar Sheikh grew up in the U.K. and dropped out of college to travel to Pakistan to join a jihadist group. He was jailed in India in 1994 for participating in the kidnapping of a group of Western tourists. He was released along with a Pakistani jihadist leader, Masood Azhar, in 1999 in exchange for passengers aboard a hijacked Indian aircraft.
Mr. Sheikh returned to Pakistani militant circles. According to the April court ruling, he met Mr. Pearl and offered to help him with a story, later luring him to Karachi, where he was abducted.
U.S. officials believe that the kidnapping of Mr. Pearl soon drew the attention of al Qaeda’s operations chief, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani believed by the U.S. to be the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Four years later, after being subjected repeatedly to waterboarding—an interrogation technique called torture by human-rights groups and now prohibited by the U.S. government—he confessed to killing Mr. Pearl.
The alleged role of Mr. Mohammed hasn’t figured in the cases before the Pakistani courts.
Corrections & Amplifications
Salman Talibuddin is advocate general for the southern province of Sindh. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated his title. (Corrected on Dec. 24)
Write to Saeed Shah at email@example.com
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