Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ordered the release of a man convicted and later acquitted over the gruesome beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.
The court also dismissed an appeal of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh’s acquittal by Pearl’s family and the Pakistani government.
It was not immediately clear whether Sheikh would be freed on Thursday, with the government of the province where he is being held previously refusing to honour similar release orders.
“The Pearl family is 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 Pearl family said in a statement released by their lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi.
The brutality of Pearl’s killing shocked many in 2002, years before the Islamic State group regularly began releasing videos of their beheadings of journalists.
Sheikh was convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, during which he was kidnapped.
Pearl had been investigating the link between Pakistani militants and Richard Reid, dubbed the “shoe bomber” after his attempt to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his footwear.
Pearl’s body was discovered in a shallow grave soon after a gruesome video of his beheading was delivered to the US consulate in Karachi.
Sheikh long denied any involvement in Pearl’s death, but the Supreme Court on Wednesday heard that he acknowledged writing a letter in 2019 admitting a minor role – raising hopes for some that he might remain behind bars.
Sheikh has been on death row in Pakistan since his conviction over the death of Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
He is currently being held in a Karachi jail, but a three-judge Supreme Court ruled 2 to 1 to uphold Sheikh’s acquittal and ordered him released, said Siddiqi.
A lawyer for Sheikh said the court also ordered the release of three other Pakistanis who had been sentenced to life in prison for their part in Pearl’s kidnapping and death.
“These people should not have been in prison even for one day,” Mehmood A. Sheikh, who is not related to his client, said.
He warned the government of southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, against delaying their release, as it has done in the past.
“I expect the Sindh government will not make a mockery of justice by continuing … to not release them for no good reason whatsoever,” he said.
Washington previously said it would seek Sheikh’s extradition to the United States to be tried there, if the acquittal was upheld.
The case seems certain to test the new Biden administration’s skill in dealing with Pakistan, considered a key ally in getting peace in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The Pearl family urged the US and Pakistani governments to take action to “correct this injustice”.
“Today’s decision is a complete travesty of justice and the release of these killers puts in danger journalists everywhere and the people of Pakistan,” the family’s statement said.