By Amit Roy
THERE is a simple reason why Omar Sheikh has not been hanged under Pakistani law for masterminding the kidnap and beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002 – and that is because he was working for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
While the organisation could not keep him out of prison, it has saved him from going to the gallows.
Now a court in Sindh has said he had served 18 years in prison – far longer than the seven-year sentence handed out for a kidnapping – and appears to be preparing the path for his release, along with three others who were convicted of the crime.
From America, Daniel’s father, Judea Pearl, a mathematician, told Eastern Eye: “It is a mockery of justice. Anyone with a minimal sense of right and wrong now expects Fail Shah, the prosecutor general of Sindh, to do his duty and appeal this reprehensible decision to the Supreme Court of Pakistan.”
He added: “The civilised world should focus now on the prison, to make sure the four criminals are not let out by some ‘oversight’, before the Supreme Court hears the appeal.”
I have also spoken to Asra Nomani, who was Daniel’s colleague on the Wall Street Journal and was in Karachi in 2002 when the kidnapping took place. She was sharing a house with Daniel and his wife, Mariane Pearl, who was expecting their first baby. Adam, born after his father’s murder, must be 18 by now.
Like Judea, Nomani is also horrified that Sheikh might be set free.
“Omar Sheikh has been a danger to society,” she told Eastern Eye. “He is still a danger to society, and he should not see the light of freedom.
“He has crossed state borders, deceived innocents and hatched treacherous plots with one goal in mind – to terrorise his targets. When Omar trapped Danny, he used the email ID ‘nobadmashi,’ which means ‘no troublemaking.’ But, in fact, Omar Sheikh is a professional criminal and villain.
“The judicial ruling to free him, as the world battles an invisible enemy on another front, is a travesty of justice. People of conscience the world over are standing firmly with Danny’s family and friends to realise justice for Danny, and our objective is to keep Omar Sheikh and his three co-defendants behind bars, to keep Pakistan and the world safe.”
Nomani recalled: “In early February 2002, FBI agents and Pakistan police tracked the cyber trail from the hostage notes with photos of Danny in captivity to Omar Sheikh, but they couldn’t find him. He turned himself over to a former ISI official, retired Brigadier Gen Ijaz Shah, then the home secretary of Punjab and a friend of the Omar Sheikh family.
“Shah and the ISI kept Omar Sheikh in secret custody for one week before turning him over to Pakistani police. By then, it was too late. Danny had been murdered.”
It is a remarkable coincidence that the officer Shah, to whom Daniel surrendered, is the same person who is today the interior minister of Pakistan.
But who is Sheikh? A new generation nay not be aware that the man, now 46, is a British Pakistani who was born in London on December 23, 1973, and went to Forest School where he was “a gent” and protected small children from being bullied by bigger boys.
But when he was at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), he went to Bosnia, witnessed the slaughter of Muslims and decided to become a terrorist. He was caught and jailed in India but was released in 1999 after the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814.
The really key figure who was freed from Delhi’s Tihar Jail with Sheikh was Maulana Masood Azhar, who founded Jaish-e-Mohammad. It was Sheikh who drew Daniel into trap in Karachi when the journalist, based in Mumbai, was looking for a scoop.
One group did the kidnapping; another group held him; and a third group beheaded Daniel and put the video online.
In 2006, with two friends, Ahmed Jamal and Ramesh Sharma, I was involved in making a feature-length documentary, The Journalist and the Jihadi, for HBO in the US. Mariane, whom I interviewed in New York, became a good friend.
We were surprised that the CIA and the FBI agents, who had led the hunt for Sheikh, also met me for filmed interviews in Washington. I met Nomani in West Virginia, and Daniel’s remarkable parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, at their home in California.
I also met Sheikh’s family who ran a clothing shop in East London. I suppose if he is released, he will probably want to return home to London, though the home secretary Priti Patel may not be keen on the idea.
Sheikh was sentenced to death but the appeal against the sentence has been going on for 18 years. It does seem like the ISI decided long ago that it would not be good for morale if he was executed. After all, he had slipped into India where he had started his career in terrorism as an ISI trainee. He was not someone who was brainwashed, he was far too intelligent and well educated for that.
In the last decade or so, Sheikh has been all but forgotten. In 2002, his kidnapping and beheading traumatised America. But the suggestion he may be released has provoked understandable fury in the US. Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan may not want to release Sheikh but his former handlers in the ISI may take a different view.
Meanwhile, Judea said he wants people to write to Khan voicing their outrage at Sheikh’s possible release.