US journalist Daniel Pearl (Photo Credit: Facebook)
The US on Friday criticised a Pakistani court for overturning the death sentence of British-born top al-Qaeda leader Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was convicted in the abduction and murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack, terming the verdict an "affront" to victims of terrorism everywhere.
The US' response comes after the Sindh High Court on Thursday found the 46-year-old Sheikh guilty of the lesser charge of kidnapping and commuted his death sentence to seven years in prison. Sheikh has been in jail for the past 18 years. A two-judge bench headed by Justice Mohammad Karim Khan Agha also acquitted the three others - Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adil- serving life sentences in the case.
"The overturning of the convictions for Daniel Pearl’s murder is an affront to victims of terrorism everywhere," Alice Wells, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, said in a tweet. But the US' top diplomat for South Asia welcomed Pakistani prosecutors' indications that they would appeal the decision. "We welcome Pakistan’s decision to appeal the verdict. Those responsible for Daniel’s heinous kidnapping and murder must face the full measure of justice," Wells said.
Pearl, the 38-year-old South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was abducted and beheaded while he was in Pakistan investigating a story on the alleged links between the country's powerful spy agency ISI and al-Qaeda.
Sheikh, who was the mastermind behind abduction and killing of Pearl, was arrested from Lahore in February 2002 and sentenced to death five months later by an anti-terrorism court.
The incident had come three years after Sheikh, along with Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, was released by India in 1999 and given safe passage to Afghanistan in exchange for the nearly 150 passengers of hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814. He was serving prison term in India for kidnappings of Western tourists in the country.
"Justice has been done to my clients," said one of Sheikh's lawyers Khawaja Naveed. The case had strained the relations between Pakistan and the US when terrorism was at its height in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
The verdict on Thursday came more than a month after Paris-based Financial Action Task Force warned Pakistan that stern action will be taken against it if the country fails to check the flow of money to terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) among others.
The FATF, which supervises effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing, last year placed Pakistan on its "Grey List" of countries for failure to curb funnelling of funds to terror groups like the LeT and the JeM.
If not removed from the list by April end, Pakistan may move to a blacklist of countries such as Iran that face severe economic sanctions.