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Leader in Murder of Reporter Gets Death Sentence in Pakistan

Crime: Three others receive life terms, but state may appeal in effort to execute them as well.

July 15, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KARACHI, Pakistan — An anti-terrorism court today sentenced to death the mastermind in the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.

Judge Syed Ali Ashraf Shah found Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, a Briton of Pakistani descent, and three accomplices guilty of the Wall Street Journal reporter's abduction and murder, prosecutor Raja Qureshi told reporters this morning.

He handed down life sentences to Salman Saquib, Fahad Naseem, and Sheikh Mohammed Adeel, who was accused of sending pictures of Pearl in captivity in two e-mails to news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times.

The judge heard a total of 23 prosecution witnesses. He also fined the three men other than Sheikh just over $8,300 each, and ordered all four to pay an additional $33,000 in total after the conviction on charges that included murder, conspiracy to kidnap, demanding ransom and destroying evidence. The fine money is expected to go to Pearl's widow, Mariane, and their infant son, Adam.

All four men pleaded not guilty to the charges, and their lawyers have already said they would appeal a guilty verdict, first to the provincial High Court, and then to Pakistan's Supreme Court if necessary.

"It's a really harsh verdict, and we intend to appeal," said Mohsin Imam, one of the defense lawyers.

The defendants sat impassively while the verdicts were read.

It could be many months before Sheikh and his accomplices have exhausted all appeals.

The prosecutor said he may launch his own appeal to have Saquib, Naseem, and Adeel executed along with Sheikh. Executions are usually carried out by hanging.

"I will await for government instructions [on] whether the state will appeal the life sentences against the three or not," Qureshi said. "Whatever the state's instructions are, I will act upon them."

The closed trial in a special anti-terrorism court began April 22 at Karachi's central jail, but it was moved to the city of Hyderabad, about 100 miles away, after there was a threat to blow up the facility.

About 600 Pakistani police and commandos guarded the Hyderabad jail where the verdict was delivered this morning. In an effort to prevent a violent backlash, Pakistani authorities had rounded up 30 suspected extremists Sunday night.

The trial was supposed to last seven days, but it ended up dragging on for three months. Two judges were replaced in the course of the trial: The first was removed because he had been present at a session in which Sheikh admitted to involvement in Pearl's kidnapping; Sheikh later recanted, and his lawyers argued that allowing him to hear the case would be prejudicial against the defense. The second judge to hear the case was replaced after prosecutors complained that he had failed to stop the accused from making threatening gestures in court.

Court cases in Pakistan are tried with a single judge, without a jury, and can be appealed to a higher court as well as the Supreme Court.

Sheikh was arrested in February. The U.S. had asked that he be extradited, but Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf turned down the request, insisting that the trial and punishment should be carried out in Pakistan to send a message that extremists won't be tolerated.

Pearl, 38, South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, disappeared Jan. 23 while working on a story about alleged "shoe bomber" Richard C. Reid, the Briton accused of trying to set off explosives in his sneakers during a December flight from Paris to Miami.

He was last seen at Karachi's Village Garden restaurant, where he went to meet a source from a Muslim extremist group. Taxi driver Nasir Abbas testified that he saw Pearl and Sheikh get into a car at that restaurant the night Pearl went missing. A Pakistani journalist who was working with Pearl also identified Sheikh in court as a man Pearl met that night.

Following the kidnapping, a previously unknown group calling itself the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty e-mailed photographs of Pearl in handcuffs, with a pistol at his head, to American news organizations.

An investigator from the FBI testified that he traced the e-mails to a laptop used by one of Sheikh's accomplices.

A month after Pearl vanished, U.S. diplomats received a grisly, three-minute videotape of his slaying and decapitation. Sheikh's lawyers insisted during the trial that the videotape was a fake.

"Give us time and a photograph of [prosecutor] Raja Qureshi and we could produce the same sort of film, with Qureshi being slaughtered," defense lawyer Rai Bashir said.

Pakistani police found what they believe to be Pearl's remains in May after arresting members of the banned Islamic extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The group is one of several suspected of involvement in a suicide bomb attack at the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi this spring.

Officials in India say Sheikh's ties to militant groups date to at least the early 1990s.

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