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Daniel Pearl murder case: Pakistan's denial of justice exposed

News Agencies | Updated on: 9 March 2021, 10:20 IST

Last month, in yet another outrage, Pakistan's Supreme Court freed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man responsible for luring Daniel Pearl to his death, from prison and sent him to a halfway house. The judges had connections to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), reported SpyTalk.

Two of the three Pakistani Supreme Court jurists who freed Sheikh in January, saying the murder conviction was flawed and that he'd already served enough time for kidnapping, are "considered sympathisers to terrorists in Pakistan," Asra Nomani, Pearl Project's reporter told SpyTalk. "One is a military judge," it added.

Pearl, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, went missing in Karachi and after a month after his disappearance on January 23, 2001, his killers posted a grisly video of his beheading.

From start to finish, the people involved in Pearl's kidnapping and murder were members of terrorist groups long backed by Pakistan's all-powerful ISI, reported SpyTalk.

The act exemplified Pakistan's treacherous double game with the US and shows how Islamabad empowers its security agencies to collaborate with the world's most dangerous terrorist groups, from Al Qaeda to the Afghan Taliban to terrorist units carrying out bloody attacks in India, reported SpyTalk.

"The overturning of the convictions of Daniel Pearl's killers reflects the tenuous nature of Pakistan's actions against terrorists," Hussain Haqqani, a prominent pro-Western Pakistani journalist who served as his nation's ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2011, told SpyTalk.

Biden administration officials responded to the Pakistani court decision with unbridled anger.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a lengthy statement asserting that the United States was "deeply concerned," a message he "reinforced" in a telephone call with Pakistan's foreign minister.

The case has been so tainted by corruption and interference by powerful figures in Pakistan's security establishment that Sheikh is not only likely to go free but escape justice here--in the unlikely event he was shipped to the US for trial.

The US and Pakistan have no extradition agreement. The case has been marred from the beginning by false, coerced and contradictory confessions.

Pakistani police coerced a confession from a taxi driver that he had ferried Pearl and Omar Saeed Sheikh to the spot where Pearl was kidnapped, reported SpyTalk.

Former FBI agent Fairman told SpyTalk that Sheikh was nowhere near Karachi. He "was actually in his hometown with his wife and family the day that Daniel Pearl was picked up [by kidnappers] in Karachi," Fairman said, "and we all knew that. It was part of the information that we passed on. Everyone knew it."

Fairman, who narrated the inside story of the FBI's handling of the case for the first time, said that he told his supervisors that not only was Sheikh 840 miles away in Islamabad, an FBI forensic analysis of the execution video released by his captors on February 22 ruled out Sheikh's presence at the scene.

The real killer was the infamous Al Qaeda terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was then at large in Pakistan and wanted for coordinating September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Fairman told SpyTalk.

"They weren't happy with that information," Fairman added. He said that he was demoted and eventually forced out of the FBI because of his objections.

Mohammed was captured by US agents in Pakistan in 2003 and immediately hustled out of the country to a succession of CIA black sites, where he was subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Four years later at Guantanamo, he confessed to FBI agents that he "personally slit Pearl's throat and severed his head to make certain he'd get the death penalty and to exploit the murder for propaganda," the Pearl Project reported.

But he has never been charged in the case. His trial by a military court on the 9/11 charges has been repeatedly delayed, most recently because of coronavirus concerns.

Fairman further stated that Pakistani authorities "refused to allow us to interview the taxi driver. It was off-limits. We were told to leave him alone--don't even push the issue. And that's it, don't touch it."

Not that Sheikh was entirely innocent--hardly. He'd volunteered to police that he'd arranged for Pearl's kidnapping, but nothing more. Fairman said that Sheikh told him he had planned to kidnap Pearl in a grand scheme to ransom him for US F-16 warplanes that Pakistan had paid for but never received because of Congressional concerns over Islamabad's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

In a deposition a few months later Sheikh told the anti-terrorism court he had nothing to do with Pearl's disappearance, that "he had never met him."

"In their haste to close the case, Pakistani authorities knowingly used perjured testimony to pin the actual act of murder on Omar Sheikh and his three co-conspirators," the Pearl Project said in its 2011 report.

The main culprit, of course, was Mohammed, who was captured in Rawalpindi, which also happens to be the headquarters of the Pakistani Army and home to hundreds of current and retired generals and senior officials of the ISI, reported SpyTalk.

In late January and early February 2002, Pakistan was under enormous pressure from Washington to find and rescue Pearl. Within days of his disappearance, his kidnappers had released a photo of Pearl with a gun at his head, but Mohammed's connection to the crime had not surfaced.

Meanwhile, on February 5, 2002, Sheikh showed up at the home of retired general Ijaz Shah, a former ISI intelligence officer. Seven days would pass before Ijaz Shah delivered Sheikh to Pakistani police.

Was ISI trying to work out some kind of deal to keep him quiet about its connection to him, or even figure out a way to help him escape?

"This interlude has raised numerous questions," noted the Pearl Project, "Was the ISI protecting Sheikh?" the project's final report asked.

"Was it holding him to make sure he wouldn't spill any of its secrets? Was Omar Sheikh hoping the intelligence service -- perhaps the most powerful institution in Pakistan--would provide him some protection?

Most provocatively, were elements in the ISI, which have backed the Taliban and Pakistan terrorist groups, knowledgeable about Omar Sheikh's kidnapping activities? Even worse, was the ISI involved?"

None of these questions have been answered.

"Islamabad was embarrassed about Pearl's execution and wanted to show it was tough on terrorism--at a time when it had just established a new, post-9/11 counterterrorism partnership with Washington," Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, recently wrote.

"Sadly," says Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff to retired CIA Director Michael Hayden, "Pakistan's behavior demonstrates that without continued US pressure--persuasion or coercion--it too readily falls back into the bad habit of protecting or even supporting those who would do Americans harm. We've seen this movie before, and we know sadly that it too often can end in American deaths."

Daniel Pearl's parents, Ruth and Judea Pearl said the family was "in complete shock" over the decision, calling it a travesty of justice." They added that "the release of these killers puts in danger journalists everywhere and the people of Pakistan."

In 2018, the Trump administration got fed up with Pakistan for continuing to "harbor criminals and terrorists," as the former president put it.

It directed the Pentagon to suspend USD 300 million in aid designated for Pakistan under a program for regional partners who are helping "stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America."

Also at the administration's urging, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international dirty-money watchdog, put Pakistan on its "grey list" for failing to crack down sufficiently on terrorism. The FATF renewed the designation last month.


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First published: 9 March 2021, 10:20 IST