Pakistan to Challenge Release of Man Convicted in Daniel Pearl Murder

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Pakistan to Challenge Release of Man Convicted in Daniel Pearl Murder

ISLAMABAD—Pakistan will try to keep in prison the man previously convicted of the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, the country’s attorney general said, as the government challenges a court order for his release.

“We will make all efforts to see he doesn’t come out and the judgment is recalled,” Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan said in an interview Friday. “All legal options are to be explored.”

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a lower-court ruling that overturned terrorism and murder convictions for Omar Sheikh, who has spent more than 18 years in prison for the crimes. The Supreme Court judges also overturned a third conviction, for kidnapping.

The court said it would explain its reasoning at a later date and ordered that he be set free from prison immediately if not wanted in any other case.

Daniel Pearl was killed in 2002 while reporting on militant networks in Pakistan.

Photo: The Wall Street Journal

Washington and the Pearl family called on Pakistan to act swiftly to keep Mr. Sheikh behind bars. American officials also said Thursday that they were ready to take him to stand trial in the U.S. Mr. Sheikh, a British citizen, has been in prison since he was convicted in 2002 of kidnapping for ransom, terrorism and murder, and sentenced to death.

Mr. Khan said Pakistan hadn’t received an official request from the U.S. to hand over Mr. Sheikh, so he couldn’t comment on the possibility.

Mr. Sheikh’s lawyer, Mahmood Sheikh, said that handing his client to the U.S. would be illegal and unconstitutional in Pakistan.

“It’s about time for the U.S. authorities to also realize that all countries have their own systems of justice,” he said. “If the highest forum of a country has come to a conclusion, why does it not occur to them that it is perhaps not a fit and proper case to have this attitude?”

Because Thursday’s ruling came from Pakistan’s highest court, it isn’t possible to make a full appeal against the outcome. Pakistani authorities filed what is known as a review petition on Friday, which said that a “serious miscarriage of justice” had taken place. They asked for the ruling to be suspended and for Omar Sheikh to be kept in jail while the petition is pending.

At the time of his death, Mr. Pearl, then the Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, was reporting on militant networks in Pakistan in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He disappeared in the southern city of Karachi in January 2002. He was killed days later. Prosecutors had alleged that Mr. Sheikh had befriended Mr. Pearl and lured him to Karachi, where he was abducted.

Omar Sheikh outside a Karachi court in 2002.

Photo: aamir qureshi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Pakistani authorities have resisted releasing Mr. Sheikh since April last year, when a lower court downgraded his sentence, making him eligible for release. The lower court said the case against him was flawed as there were “missing links in the chain of evidence” from Mr. Pearl’s abduction to his murder. It said the flaws included unreliable confessions from Mr. Sheikh’s alleged accomplices and questions over whether investigators had tampered with the laptop that was allegedly used to send ransom emails.

The Pakistani authorities and the Pearl family then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that there was evidence that tied Mr. Sheikh to the crime. The Pakistani authorities said questions raised about the evidence, including evidence at the scene of the kidnapping and ransom emails, were unjustified.

The Journal’s publisher, Dow Jones & Co., a unit of News Corp, contributed to the legal fees for the family’s appeal. Matt Murray, the Journal’s editor in chief, said Thursday that the Supreme Court ruling was unjust.

Both the lower court and the Supreme Court examined the evidence presented at the original 2002 trial, not new evidence. The two courts also ruled that three alleged accomplices weren’t involved in the crime.

Since the lower-court ruling last year, the government has used preventive-detention powers, despite multiple court orders to free Mr. Sheikh.

Mr. Sheikh’s lawyer, Mahmood Sheikh, said that he would take the issue to the Supreme Court if the authorities didn’t allow his client now to walk free.

“The authorities in Pakistan will not act wisely if they try to create further hurdles to his release,” he said.

U.S. officials remain convinced Omar Sheikh played a major role in Mr. Pearl’s abduction and killing. How Islamabad handles U.S. demands will be an early test of relations with the new administration of President Biden.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in a statement said he spoke Friday to his Pakistani counterpart and “reinforced U.S. concern about the Pakistani Supreme Court ruling and potential release of these prisoners”.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told Mr. Blinken that “it was important and in the mutual interest that justice is served through legal means,” according to the statement.

The U.S. hasn’t spelled out how it proposes to take custody of Mr. Sheikh. The U.S. doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Pakistan. U.S. officials have indicated they would likely first see if Pakistan can keep him locked up.

In the years following the Sept. 11 attacks, Pakistan handed over dozens of alleged militants in a clandestine program that has been discontinued.

Write to Saeed Shah at saeed.shah@wsj.com

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