Pakistan’s highest court on Thursday ordered the release of the man who had been convicted of being the mastermind behind the 2002 kidnapping and death of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, in a ruling that experts say shows the weakness of terrorism prosecutions in the country.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court in Islamabad upheld a lower court’s decision to acquit and release the man, Ahmed Omar Sheikh, a British national and militant.
Mr. Sheikh has long denied any involvement in Mr. Pearl’s abduction and murder, but the Supreme Court on Wednesday heard new evidence that he had acknowledged writing a letter in 2019 admitting a minor role. That had raised hopes for some that he might remain in jail.
Instead, the new ruling could bring to an end an 18-year case in which all four men originally arrested and charged with Mr. Pearl’s abduction and murder have now been acquitted.
The journalist’s parents, Ruth and Judea Pearl, said in a statement that the family was “in complete shock by the majority decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to acquit and release Ahmed Omer Sheikh and the other accused persons who kidnapped and killed Daniel Pearl.”
The Pearls urged the U.S. government to “correct this injustice,” and the White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the decision an “affront to terrorism victims everywhere.” The family said it would seek a review of the Supreme Court’s order.
The Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Sheikh and the three men who were earlier convicted as being accomplices — Fahad Nasim Ahmed, Syed Salman Saqib and Shaikh Muhammad Adil — should “be released from the jail forthwith.”
“Their acquittal is maintained on all the charges,” the justices wrote in a brief order.
It was not immediately clear whether any of the men would be freed on Thursday. Pakistan’s government has previously refused to honor such orders.
Mr. Sheikh’s lawyer said in an interview that the court’s ruling meant the 18-year-old case against his client was effectively over.
“The court’s decision showed that Pakistani courts are independent and do not bow to any pressure,” said the lawyer, Mehmood A. Sheikh, who is not related to his client. “Sheikh’s family has sympathies with Pearl’s family, but it is the duty of law enforcement agencies to arrest the real killers.”
Legal experts and security officials familiar with the case say the prosecution of Mr. Sheikh — marred by accusations of evidence tampering, coerced witness testimonies and the failure to recover the murder weapon — was flawed from the beginning.
Analysts said the court’s decision could compromise Pakistan’s longstanding efforts to remove itself from the watch list of the Financial Action Task Force, a watchdog group focused on international money laundering and the financing of terrorism.
Pakistan has made some strides against two prominent militant groups: Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which perpetrated the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, an extremist group that aims to annex Indian-administered Kashmir on behalf of Pakistan. It has arrested their key leaders and members, sealed properties and frozen their bank accounts, said Muhammad Amir Rana, the head of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.
But Mr. Rana said “the decision on the Pearl murder case shows Pakistan’s failure in prosecuting the people linked with the case of terrorism.”
He also said Pakistan’s weak prosecutions had become a major concern in terrorism cases. Last month, an antiterrorism court in Karachi released four men who had been charged with facilitating a 2014 attack on Karachi airport, citing a lack of evidence. At least 27 people, including security officials and airport employees, were killed in the episode, in which 10 attackers also died.
In the Pearl case, the High Court in Sindh Province in April overturned Mr. Sheikh’s murder conviction, saying there was enough evidence to support the abduction charge but not murder. The court reduced his sentence to seven years, a move that would allow him to walk free, since he had already been in jail for 18 years.
The Sindh government invoked a terrorism law to keep Mr. Sheikh and the three men convicted as his accomplices in detention.
Mr. Pearl’s family and the government appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it to overturn the lower court’s ruling.
Mr. Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was abducted and killed in the southern port city of Karachi in January 2002 while working on an investigation about militant groups’ links to Al Qaeda. He was beheaded the next month.
Soon after his death, Pakistan’s government, then led by President Pervez Musharraf, moved quickly to arrest Mr. Sheikh and the other men amid a global outcry and pressure from the United States.
In a statement on Thursday, Monty Wilkinson, the acting U.S. attorney general, said American officials were “deeply concerned” by the ruling.
“The release of those involved would be an affront to Daniel Pearl’s family, to other terrorism victims around the world, and to the cause of justice,” he said in a statement, adding that the United States “stands ready” to take custody of Mr. Sheikh to face trial there.
Mr. Sheikh, the statement said, “must not be permitted to evade justice for his charged role in Daniel Pearl’s abduction and murder.”
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