The Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan ordered the immediate release of Omar Sheikh, the prime accused in the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and murder case, today. In its short order, the apex court dismissed the petition against its earlier judgement by the Sindh government, and upheld the verdict of the Sindh High Court (SHC).
Does this mean the end of the controversial case that has been running for 18 years?
Daniel Pearl, an American journalist heading the Wall Street Journal’s Pakistan bureau in 2002, was beheaded and mutilated after being allegedly kidnapped by the accused. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (known as Omar Sheikh), Fahad Nasim Ahmed, Syed Salman Saqib, and Sheikh Muhammad Adil were sentenced to death or life imprisonment on charges of kidnapping Pearl and conspiring in his murder. However, the Sindh High Court acquitted all four in April 2020. This acquittal was appealed by Pearl’s parents and the Sindh government in the Supreme Court.
In December 2020, the SHC ordered the immediate release of the accused—citing lack of legal grounds to keep them detained—leading to “deep concern” expressed by the United States. Meanwhile, a contempt of court case was heard in the Sindh High Court against the authorities withholding the release.
The Supreme Court’s order today upheld the order of the Sindh High Court, dismissing the appeals and calling for the immediate release of accused.
Room for case review
After the SC’s dismissal of the appeals against the SHC’s verdict, there is a limited chance for a review of the case.
“There is limited scope for a review petition,” Usman Ghani, a constitutional lawyer, told The Correspondent. “But this happens only on technical matters, and is not always applicable.”
“Apart from that, the Supreme Court verdict appears to be final,” he said.
In a press briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) today, spokesperson Mr Zahid Chaudri briefly addressed the apex court’s verdict.
When asked if the government will appeal the judgement, or whether it will be of significance for Pakistan in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting next month, Mr Chaudri declined to comment in detail.
“I am not in a position to comment yet,” the MOFA spokesperson said. “The detailed judgement of the court is not yet available.”
Even if the government of Pakistan decides to appeal the SC’s verdict and file a review petition, the decision to proceeed with a full court appeal case would only be the apex court’s prerogative.
Chances of extradition
The United States is yet to release a formal response to the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s judgement. Late last year, the US government said it was willing to take Omar Sheikh in custody to proceed with the case in US courts if the Pakistani court fails to deliver justice to the slain US journalist.
As of now, no official contact has been initiated between the newly elected US President Biden’s administration and the Pakistani government on the matter. The newly appointed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi are expected to soon establish formal communication, and the SC’s verdict in the Daniel Pearl case is likely to strain Pakistan’s relationship with the new US administration.
In December 2020, the US State Justice Department, in a series of tweets, urged the government of Pakistan to ensure justice in the Daniel Pearl case.
“We remain grateful for the Pakistani government’s actions to appeal such rulings to ensure that he and his co-defendants are held accountable,” the US State Justice Department said in a statement issued on December 30. “If, however, those efforts do not succeed, the United States stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial here. We cannot allow him to evade justice for his role in Daniel Pearl’s abduction and murder.”
“We understand that Pakistani authorities are taking steps to ensure that Omar Sheikh remains in custody while the Supreme Court appeal seeking to reinstate his conviction continues,” then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said. “The separate judicial rulings reversing his conviction and ordering his release are an affront to terrorism victims everywhere.”
In a statement today, Daniel Pearl’s parents called the latest SC ruling a “complete travesty of justice” and urged the US government to take action. “We urge the US government to take all necessary actions under the law to correct this injustice,” they said.
It remains to be seen what stance the US government will take regarding the recent developments in this case. Currently, there is no existing extradition treaty between the US and Pakistan that can result in Omar Sheikh being tried in US courts. Moreoever, there is little precedent of this occuring in any past criminal cases.