The way Pakistan deals with militancy-related cases, their being investigated and tried by its judiciary has striking similarities. There are huge delays, when concerned officials and judges are changed. No conclusive evidence emerges in most cases that could lead to a definitive court verdict and punishment to those convicted.

For one, this is how those responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks are tackled. The accused are treated as heroes, showered flower petals by admirers, including lawyers in the courtroom — enough to scare the judge(s) into not ruling adversely. The courts then criticise the investigating agencies and their processes. They find them lacking in proper evidence-gathering and prosecution procedures. This allows the accused/convicts to get bail, and to get an acquittal.

If the Mumbai attack masterminds Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed have been convicted for money laundering and sentenced to 15 years in prison in early January then it came ahead of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) proceedings later this month. After its conclusion, how these terrorists are released on some pretext or the other will need watching. And this keeps recurring.

Such an approach has been followed in some political assassinations as well. The most glaring was that of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. From 15-year-old suicide bomber Bilal to tribal chief Baitullah Mahsud, to then military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf was suspected and subsequently charged. Even a United Nations-instituted probe did not yield anything as authorities did not cooperate.

None less than Musharraf, while ridiculing the charge that he had ordered Benazir’s killing, agreed to a suggestion in a BBC interview in 2017 that “rogue elements within the establishment” could have been involved. “A lady who is known to be inclined towards the West is seen suspiciously by those elements.” In Pakistan, ‘establishment’ is the powerful civil-military combination with select politicians playing musical chairs.  

Long after he lost power, Musharraf was charged with her murder in 2013. A case is pending against him, probably because it suites the current ‘establishment.’

The Daniel Pearl Case

All these surface, yet again, in Pakistan’s latest judicial and diplomatic acrobatics over the Supreme Court verdict on Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born terrorist with Pakistani roots. Sheikh and three others were earlier convicted of kidnapping and beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl in January 2002. The Wall Street Journal reporter was in Karachi in the wake of 9/11 to trace extremist groups in Pakistan and their Al Qaida links.  

Sheikh was sentenced to death. After 18 years of denying any role, in what seems to be a ploy to escape the gallows, Sheikh suddenly acknowledged “partial role” and threw the blame on someone who is now dead. As per a Sindh High Court verdict, Sheikh finds himself on the cusp of being freed along with the three convicted accomplices.  This was upheld by the Supreme Court. The government, facing a volley of protests from the United States, sought a review. But bizarre though it seems, the Supreme Court has not only rejected it, but it also chose to hear other sides. And even more bizarre, it has ordered that Sheikh be moved out of the condemned cell — that may well be more than just symbolic — and placed at a security-clad rest house. Sheikh, thus, is the latest beneficiary of the course of investigation and trial Pakistan pursues in terror-related cases.

It is significant that the apex court set free all the accused, including Sheikh, rejecting the government’s plea to maintain the status quo, despite the attorney general citing “tremendous global implication and grave emergency as well as serious consequences” of their being set free in the wake of the demands by the US. This makes the task of the government more daunting than it may have calculated, hoping to get relief from the court. Islamabad may have more explaining to do with Washington.  

Whatever its rationale, the Supreme Court’s rejection of the heart-rending appeal for justice before Pakistan’s highest court by Pearl’s ageing parents underscores the role of the State and the threat journalists face in Pakistan – and perhaps the world over – when pursuing cases related to religious extremism and terrorism.

Dawn newspaper listed some of the accusations against Sheikh in an editorial (January 30, 2021) about how he “…..apparently was also the person who called then President Asif Zardari, impersonating the Indian external affairs minister from inside his prison cell.”

“He is accused of kidnapping four foreign tourists in India-held Kashmir as well as transferring money to a militant involved in the 9/11 attacks. The fact that this man has always been a step ahead of the authorities is mind-boggling.”

Lamenting that “perhaps the world will never learn what his true role was in Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder,” and counselling that “he is a dangerous man who should remain behind bars,” the newspaper stated: “The entire case points to the sorry state of Pakistan’s law-enforcement agencies that have failed to produce convincing evidence that holds in a court of law. The fact that an individual accused of endless criminal acts has time and again hoodwinked the authorities is an indictment of the investigating agencies in the country.”

Diplomatic fallout

Pakistan cannot escape the diplomatic fallout.  Pearl’s family has called it “a complete travesty of justice.”  United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ office has said: “What is important that there be accountability for those crimes committed.”

The most damning critique – and demand – however, have come from the United States, and not just because Pearl and his family are Americans. In fact, last Thursday’s verdict that upheld Sheikh’s acquittal was delivered while overlooking a warning by the Donald Trump administration on December 28, 2020 against the killer’s acquittal. During its last month in office, the Trump administration had said the US was ready to take Sheikh’s custody, asserting that Washington will not allow him to evade justice. Then Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson had said the US was “deeply concerned by the ruling affirming the acquittal of individuals convicted by a Pakistani trial court.”

New Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that America was ready to prosecute Sheikh and that he was “deeply concerned” by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision. Blinken recalled that besides Pearl’s murder, Sheikh had been indicted in the US in 2002 for hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, as also the 1994 kidnapping of another American citizen in India. Blinken termed the verdict as an “affront to terrorism victims everywhere” and said that the US expected Pakistan’s authorities to “expeditiously review its legal options to ensure justice is served.” 

This was Blinken’s very first telephone call made to Islamabad on assuming office. Pakistan could not have made a worse beginning with the new Biden administration. President Joe Biden has been known for his principled stand against counter-terrorism and had dealt with Pakistan as the vice president in the Barack Obama administration.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has in recent months blown hot and cold towards the US while seeking and receiving Chinese support.  The largely transactional US-Pakistan relationship confronts another major issue in Pakistan’s facilitating the US’ peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan under the Doha Pact that the Biden team now wants to review. The US-led NATO has just announced that foreign troops will stay in Afghanistan beyond the Doha-agreed May deadline this year.

That queers the pitch for all. Can Islamabad, seeking advantage in Afghanistan, and hoping to be compensated by the US, push Doha (pact) with Washington? While peace in Afghanistan seems a long way off, and the two issues are not connected, the Pearl/Sheikh issue has emerged as a diplomatic hot potato. 

For now, how the Imran Khan government and its military mentors comply with Washington’s  demand – that also has the support of the democratic world community –  for justice to Pearl remains to be seen.


Mahendra Ved is a veteran journalist who has served with the Times of India, Hindustan Times and United News of India. The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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