Daniel Pearl’s life ended in the most violent way at the hands of terrorists who filmed the journalist’s beheading and sent a video to the US consulate in Pakistan.
The Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief was abducted and beheaded by jihadists in the Pakistani city of Karachi in 2002 when he organised an interview with a reclusive spiritual leader.
It was a risky scenario in the aftermath of 9/11, but Pearl took his chances. He hopped in a taxi and was not seen again until he appeared in grainy video footage wearing a colourful jacket and holding a copy of Pakistan’s English language newspaper, Dawn.
What happened next is too graphic to describe but started a series of events that led to the capture of those responsible.
Ahmad Omar Sheikh, Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adil were arrested one month after the murder and at a trial in 2002 were found guilty of kidnapping and murder.
Three of the men were sentenced to life in prison and Sheikh was sentenced to death.
But almost 20 years on, the story is far from done. In a twist that has added to the heartbreak of the journalist’s grieving family, Sheikh is about to walk free.
The British-born militant and the three other men were all acquitted in April last year by the Sindh High Court on the grounds there was insufficient evidence.
The matter went before the Supreme Court in Islamabad on Thursday and the acquittal of Sheikh was upheld, despite a letter he wrote in 2019 admitting to his role in the journalist’s grisly death.
That letter, dated July 25, declared he was involved but argues he had a “relatively minor role”.
The admission, according to Pearl’s family, is now worthless.
In a statement, Ruth and Judea Pearl said they could not believe the news.
“It is beyond belief that Ahmad Omar Sheikh – who after 18 years of lies, had finally admitted in a handwritten letter to the court his role in the kidnapping for ransom of Daniel Pearl – has been given a clean slate and let loose once again upon the world to continue his international terrorist activities,” Pearl’s family said in the statement posted to Twitter by Pearl’s former colleague Asra Nomani.
In an emotional video, Mrs Pearl says her life has been turned upside down.
“Since 2002, when our son was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan, our lives have been upside down.
“There’s not a single day we don’t miss our son.”
Lawyers for Pearl’s family have argued that Sheikh played a crucial role in organising the abduction and detention of the journalist before ordering his captors to kill him.
Defence lawyers, however, say he was a scapegoat and sentenced on insufficient evidence.
Sheikh and three other men have been detained under the emergency orders of Sindh government since their acquittal last year but still have multiple court challenges linked to their case.
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.
He was later sentenced to death.
US President Joe Biden’s administration was “outraged by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision”, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters last week.
The new US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, on Friday spoke with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, pressing his “concern about the potential release of these prisoners”, a spokesman for the US Department of State said.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times, journalist Farah Stockman wrote that she had been trying to secure an interview with the same spiritual leader before Pearl was kidnapped and murdered.
“Daniel Pearl and I were both trying to interview the same reclusive spiritual leader in Pakistan when he was kidnapped and killed,” Stockman wrote.
“‘Don’t worry,’ a spokesman for the spiritual leader assured me. ‘If anyone gets an interview, it will be you.’
“But Mr Pearl, a more seasoned journalist who served as The Journal’s South Asia bureau chief at the time, found someone who promised to arrange the coveted interview. He jumped into a taxi and disappeared.”
She wrote that she was “haunted” by Pearl’s murder.
“That was the moment I realised that this thing we do called journalism contained dangers I hadn’t contemplated before,” Stockman wrote.
“It was a fitting lesson for the era of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which opened the country’s eyes to how easily it could become a victim.
“And so it was upsetting to read recently that a Pakistani court ordered the release of Omar Sheikh, the British-born militant who orchestrated the kidnapping of Mr Pearl.”
– With AFP