A Pakistani court on Thursday ordered the immediate release of the four suspects in journalist Daniel Pearl’s beheading — defying its own government, which had demanded they stay behind bars.
Sindh High Court issued a written order for accused mastermind Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and alleged cohorts Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil and Salman Saqib to be “released from jail forthwith,” according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“The release might take place today and if not then it is in the next 24 hours,” the men’s lawyer, Mahmood Sheikh — who is no relation to the jailed militant — told the wire service.
“There is no legal hitch in setting them free,” he added, despite orders from Pakistan’s government for them to remain detained.
British-born suspect Sheikh was in 2002 sentenced to death for the kidnapping and beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter in January that year, a gruesome crime that was filmed and sent to the US consulate. The other three suspects were all sentenced to life in prison.
The same provincial court that ordered their release Thursday had in April this year overturned the murder convictions and sentences, a move that stunned the US government, Pearl’s family and journalism advocacy groups.
Sheikh’s conviction was downgraded to kidnapping, which carries a maximum of seven years in jail, less than he had already served, the Wall Street Journal said.
Pakistan’s government ordered that they remain behind bars until appeals were heard, singling out Sheikh as a specific danger if released.
Faisal Siddiqi, a lawyer for Pearl’s family, said the Sindh provincial government is appealing the order to release Sheikh.
The acquittals are now being appealed separately by both the Pakistani government and Pearl’s family. The Supreme Court will resume its hearing on Jan. 5.
Pearl, a 38-year-old reporter from Encino, California was abducted Jan. 23, 2002 in Karachi while investigating ties between Pakistani militants and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.
In Sheikh’s original trial, emails showed he gained Pearl’s confidence by sharing their experiences waiting for the birth of their first child, with Pearl’s wife, Marianne, giving birth to a son, Adam, four months after the reporter’s murder.
Sheikh, a seasoned jihadist who studied at the London School of Economics, was arrested days after Pearl’s kidnapping and later sentenced to death by hanging.
Pearl’s widow had long predicted he would never be killed that way, however.
“The fact he was sentenced to death doesn’t mean he is going to die. Definitely not,” she said in 2003. “I think he deserves to die and that he should die, he’s a psycho,” she said.
However, a report released by the Pearl Project at Georgetown University has claimed that the wrong men were convicted for Pearl’s murder.
Instead, the investigation says Pearl was murdered by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and is being held in Guantanamo Bay.