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World

18 Years After Murder And Arrests, Convictions In Daniel Pearl Killing Are Reversed

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A Pakistani court this week overturned the convictions of four men accused in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The beheading of Daniel Pearl was videotaped and released to the world just after the 9/11 attacks. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports on the latest twists in the case.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Daniel Pearl had been reporting on the connections between Pakistani religious militants and the so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid when he went missing in January 2002.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In Pakistan, the hunt continues for all those responsible in the kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

HADID: The way Pearl was killed was a portent of how jihadists would use cinematic violence against innocents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A videotape was delivered to the U.S. Consulate in Karachi. The tape shows the gruesome last moments of Pearl's life.

HADID: Within weeks of his killing, Pakistani authorities arrested three accomplices and the chief suspect.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Police say Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was taken into custody this morning.

HADID: Fast-forward to last Thursday, when a judge in the High Court in Pakistan's Sindh province overturned the guilty verdicts against the three accomplices. He said their guilt had not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. And the judge ruled Sheikh guilty only of kidnapping and cleared him of the murder charge.

ASRA NOMANI: All of Danny's family and friends were blindsided.

HADID: That's Pearl's friend and colleague Asra Nomani.

NOMANI: Eighteen years later, in the dark of the night, as we slept here in the United States, we learned that Omar Sheikh receives this Get Out of Jail Free card.

HADID: Nomani believes Sheikh, who was born in Britain, was part of a terrorist network propped up by the Pakistani intelligence service. She oversaw an investigative research project that concluded Sheikh planned Pearl's kidnapping and murder. But the researchers found the act itself was likely carried out by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and his accomplices all appealed their convictions in 2002. In Pakistan, cases can languish for years. But former Pakistani lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says the timing of the ruling wasn't an accident.

AFRASIAB KHATTAK: I think they were waiting for the mood to change in the United States.

HADID: And a sign that the mood had changed came in late February.

KHATTAK: After Pakistan had successfully brokered a deal between the U.S. and Taliban.

HADID: That deal called for most American forces to withdraw from Afghanistan. Khattak says it signaled to Pakistan's military that America is walking away.

KHATTAK: It seems the so-called war on terror has come to an end.

HADID: But other Pakistani analysts see the timing as coincidental and say the sudden ruling reflects the country's chaotic justice system. The State Department called it an affront to victims of terrorism everywhere. The Pakistani prosecutor is appealing to his country's Supreme Court. And Nomani, Pearl's friend, says she hopes justice will prevail.

NOMANI: What we hope now is that the Pakistani government and the prosecutor does the right thing, pursues this case to the highest levels in the Pakistani justice system and keeps Omar Sheikh in jail.

HADID: For now, Sheikh and the others will remain in jail. Yesterday, the city government ordered they remain in detention, arguing that they're a risk to public order.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR AND 9 THEORY'S "CHAMELEON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.