A Pakistani court Thursday overturned the murder conviction of a British Pakistani man found guilty of the 2002 kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Instead, the court found Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh guilty of the lesser charge of kidnapping and sentenced him to seven years in prison.
Pearl disappeared on January 23 in Karachi while researching links between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, a man known as the “shoe bomber” who was arrested in December 2001 on a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives in his footwear.
Prosecutors said Saeed lured Pearl into a trap by promising to arrange an interview with an Islamic cleric who he said had information. Police believed the religious figure was not involved in the conspiracy.
One of Saeed’s lawyers, Khwaja Naveed, said Saeed could go free unless the government chooses to challenge the court decision. Faiz Shah, prosecutor general for southern Sindh province, said the government will appeal to the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Saeed has already spent 18 years in prison in southern Hyderabad on death row. The seven-year sentence was expected to be counted as time served, said Mr Naveed.
The Sindh High Court also acquitted three others accused in the case: Fahad Naseem, Sheikh Adil, and Salman Saqib, who were earlier sentenced to life in prison. The defendants were also collectively fined $32,000.
“Justice has been done for my clients,” said Mr Naveed.
Saeed, a former student at the London School of Economics, and the others were convicted in 2002.
A videotape received by US diplomats in February 2002 confirmed that Pearl, 38, was dead.
In court testimony and emails released during the trial, Saeed said he developed a personal relationship with Pearl, with both sharing their concerns about their wives, who were both pregnant at the time. Marianne Pearl gave birth to their son Adam in May 2002.
The Pearl Project, an investigative journalism team at Washington’s Georgetown University, carried out a three-year investigation into Pearl’s kidnapping and death.
They concluded the reporter was beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and later described as the architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Mohammad is a prisoner at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Soon after Pearl disappeared, Pakistani and US news organizations received emails from the previously unknown National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. The group demanded better treatment for Taliban and Al Qaida prisoners at Guantanamo.
FBI agents traced the emails to Saeed, who admitted his role in the kidnapping during his first court appearance but later recanted.
“Right or wrong I had my reasons,” Saeed told the court at the time. “I think that our country shouldn’t be catering to America’s needs.” The statement was ruled inadmissible because it was not made under oath.
Saeed had been arrested in 1994 by Indian authorities, accused of kidnapping three Britons and an American, who were all freed unharmed, in Indian-ruled Kashmir, Hindu India’s only Muslim majority region. Kashmir is a disputed territory between Pakistan and India.
Since 1989, an insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir has been demanding either outright independence for a united Kashmir or union with Islamic Pakistan.
In 1999, India freed Saeed and two other militants in exchange for the release of 155 passengers and crew aboard an Indian Airlines plane hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The Pearl kidnapping was the first of five attacks against Westerners in Pakistan in 2002. A grenade attack against a Protestant church in Islamabad on March 17 killed five people, including two Americans and the attacker.