On the face of it, it was perhaps a landmark order that was pronounced by the Sindh High Court on Thursday, notably the dilution of the death sentence that had been awarded in 2002 to Omar Saeed Sheikh, the main accused in the Daniel Pearl murder case. The intrepid South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal had been abducted and beheaded in Karachi while probing the alleged links between the ISI and Al Qaida.
The murder has been rated as a “grisly signpost in the history of militancy in Pakistan”. The gut-churning assassination was carried out by one of the most dangerous militants who has now been spared the gallows and with a considerably truncated jail term ~ barely seven years. Considering that he has already spent the past 18 years in jail, he may walk free any day.
The authorities must have been privy to the hideous act. And yet 18 years after and in the immediate aftermath of the verdict, the Pakistan government’s response makes it pretty obvious that the law-enforcement authorities had failed ~ deliberately or otherwise ~ to build up a “watertight case” against the assassins.
The prosecution side lunged from inaction on the one hand and confusion at another remove. In a resounding setback for the Bench, the provincial government in Sindh has on Friday invoked the Maintenance of Public Order law that will allow the continued imprisonment of Omar Saeed Sheikh.
It is a reflection on the conduct of the trial that the executive has had to alert the judiciary ~ another factor in Pakistan’s power-play ~ that the release of Sheikh and his three associates could jeopardise the volatile law and order situation in Sindh and even embolden the terrorists. Indeed, Pearl’s killing marked the beginning of targeting journalists. The judgment has been resented even by the country’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who has said that he is surprised at the timing of the verdict.
From Islamabad and Karachi to the United States, the fairly lenient judgment on the Pearl killers has caused a flutter in the roost. The US has criticised the Sindh High Court for “overturning the death sentence of the Al Qaida leader”, debunking the verdict as an “affront” to the victims of terrorism everywhere.
Notably, the Pakistan government’s resolve to appeal against the verdict has been welcomed by the State Department. “We welcome Pakistan’s decision to appeal against the verdict,” was the immediate response of the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia.
“Those responsible for Daniel’s heinous kidnapping and murder must face the full measure of justice.” In the context of the interior ministry’s assertion that the government was well aware of the facts, it is hard not to wonder if Sindh High Court has played to the gallery of the terrorists, who may now be enjoying a quiet chuckle. The judgment displays non-application of mind.