A panel of three judges of Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ordered the release of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was convicted of killing US journalist Daniel Pearl, a government lawyer said.
“By a majority of two to one, they have acquitted all the accused persons and ordered their release,” provincial attorney general, Salman Talibuddin, told Reuters news agency in a text message on Thursday.
Sheikh, a 47-year-old British-Pakistani, was the main suspect in the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter.
The court also dismissed an appeal of Sheikh’s acquittal by Pearl’s family.
“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 Pearl family said in a statement released by their lawyer.
Sheikh has been on death row since his conviction in Pearl’s killing. His lawyer said Sheikh “should not have spent one day in jail”.
Lawyer Mehmood A Sheikh said the court ordered three other Pakistanis, who had been sentenced to life in prison for their part in Pearl’s kidnapping and murder, also freed.
The ruling follows an international outcry last year after a lower court acquitted Sheikh of murder and reduced his conviction to a lesser charge of kidnapping, overturning his death sentence and ordering his release after almost 20 years in prison.
Shiraz Paracha, political analyst and current affairs commentator, told Al Jazeera from Peshawar that the country’s general public does not have a keen interest in the story, but “this case is going to be a big challenge for the state of Pakistan”.
“We have a new administration in the United States and in the very beginning Pakistan has this crisis,” he said. “The US is very sensitive about this case and Daniel Pearl’s family and the US government both are keen to have this man convicted.”
Pearl was the South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal when he was abducted in Karachi in January 2002 while researching a story about armed fighters in the country.
Nearly a month later, after a string of ransom demands were made, a graphic video showing his decapitation was delivered to the US consulate in Karachi.
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 has been made a scapegoat for the murder and was sentenced on insufficient evidence.
Sheikh and the three other men convicted of the kidnapping have been held under emergency orders by the Sindh provincial government, which has argued that they are a danger to the public.
There was no word on when they will be released following Thursday’s decision.
In a statement last month, the then-US acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said the United States “stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial here” after labelling the acquittal “an affront to terrorism victims everywhere”.
Washington previously said it would demand Sheikh be extradited to the US to be tried there. There was no immediate reaction from the US embassy to the court order upholding the appeal.
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