Daniel Pearl. Photo: AFP / Wall Street Journal

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed a series of appeals against the acquittal of the British-born militant convicted of masterminding the kidnap and murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl, paving the way for his release along with three others.

“The court has come out to say that there is no offense that he has committed in this case,” Mahmood Sheikh, who represented accused Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, told AFP.

“The court has said he should be released forthwith,” the lawyer added.

The ruling follows an international outcry last year when a lower court acquitted the 47-year-old of murder and reduced his conviction to a lesser charge of kidnapping – overturning his death sentence and ordering his release after almost two decades in prison.

The lower court’s move sparked a series of petitions against the acquittal, including from Pearl’s family.

The Supreme Court rejected the petitions in a split decision Thursday. 

Pearl was the South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal when he was abducted in Karachi in January 2002 while researching a story about Islamist militants.

Nearly a month later, after a string of ransom demands were made, a graphic video showing his decapitation was delivered to the US consulate.

Sheikh, a British-born jihadist who once studied at the London School of Economics and had been involved in previous kidnappings of foreigners, was arrested days after Pearl’s abduction and later sentenced to death by hanging.

Lawyers for Pearl’s family have argued that Sheikh played a crucial role in organizing the abduction and detention of the journalist, before ordering his captors to kill him. 

Defense lawyers, however, say he was a scapegoat and sentenced on insufficient evidence. 

Sheikh and the three other men convicted of involvement in the kidnapping have been held under emergency orders by the Sindh provincial government, which has argued that they are a danger to the public. 

‘Travesty of justice’

There was no word on when they will be released following Thursday’s decision.

Pearl’s family called the latest ruling “a travesty of justice” and pleaded for US intervention in the case. 

“The release of these killers puts in danger journalists everywhere and the people of Pakistan. We urge the US government to take all necessary actions under the law to correct this injustice,” the family said in a statement.

In a statement last month, the then-US acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said Washington “stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial here” after labeling the acquittal “an affront to terrorism victims everywhere”.

Pakistani police escort British-born Islamic militant Sheikh Omar head covered) , the prime suspect in the kidnapping and murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl, to the court in Karachi, February 26, 2002. Omar was identified by one of the witnesses in the case, who had allegedly arranged the meeting between him and abductee Pearl. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Private schoolboy to kidnapper

Omar Sheikh traded privilege and scholarship for a life of jihad, kidnappings and, ultimately, a prison cell.  

Born in London in 1973 to a prosperous Pakistani garment merchant, Omar was given the best education, including enrollment at a private primary school in London, a stint at Lahore’s prestigious Aitchison College and matriculation at the London School of Economics.

He abandoned his comfortable Western upbringing after just a year at LSE. During the brutal Balkans war in the early 1990s he reportedly traveled to Bosnia, where his jihadist zeal sprouted after he came into contact with Pakistani militants.

The former boxer and arm wrestling enthusiast is believed to have returned to Pakistan to spend several months in a militant training camp, and then traveled to the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir to fight Indian forces.

In India he carried out his first kidnapping, abducting an American and three British tourists in 1994.

Indian police captured him in a shootout, initially thinking he was one of the British hostages because of his clipped accent and Western bearing.

He was jailed in New Delhi, but never charged.

While confined there, awaiting his fate, he met Pakistani jihadist Maulana Masood Azhar, who went on to found the hardline Kashmir militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed.

New Delhi freed both Azhar and Omar in 1999 when the hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane demanded his release in exchange for their hostages.

Omar returned to Lahore to live with his family, marrying in November 2000.

Pearl killing

Omar came into contact with the victim when Pearl, the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, was delving into the murky underworld of Pakistani militant groups after the September 11, 2001, attacks and in the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan.

The two exchanged several emails, according to police, as Pearl sought introductions to militant leaders.

In their correspondence Omar presented himself as a warm, family-oriented man – all part of a ploy to lure Pearl to a trap that ultimately led to his abduction during a reporting trip in Karachi in January 2002. 

Omar was arrested in February 2002 while Pearl was still missing, and boasted to a Karachi court that the journalist was already dead.

A week later, the graphic video depicting Pearl’s gruesome decapitation was delivered to the US consulate in Karachi.

Omar remained defiant even after being sentenced to death for his role in the kidnapping. 

“We shall see who will die first, either I or the authorities who have arranged the death sentence for me,” he said in a message read out by his lawyer.

However in January 2011, a report released by the Pearl Project at Georgetown University following an investigation into his death made chilling revelations, claiming that the wrong men were convicted for Pearl’s murder.

The investigation, led by Pearl’s friend and former Wall Street Journal colleague Asra Nomani and a Georgetown University professor, claimed the reporter was murdered by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, not Sheikh. 

Mohammed, who is currently in the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, confessed to killing Pearl, American officials said in 2007. 

Defense lawyers for Sheikh had his murder conviction and death sentence overturned in early 2020, and that was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court Thursday, paving the way for his release along with three other accomplices.