Lawyers file petition against refusal of Pakistan authorities to release Daniel Pearl's killers

The Sindh High Court on December 24 directed security agencies not to keep Sheikh and other accused under “any sort of detention”. However, the provincial and jail authorities have not released them as yet

The lawyers for British-born al-Qaeda leader Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and his three aides have filed an appeal petition in a Pakistani court against the refusal of the authorities to release them from jails despite their convictions in the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl being set aside last month.

In a surprise move, a two-judge bench of the Sindh High Court on December 24 directed security agencies not to keep Sheikh and other accused under "any sort of detention" and declared all notifications of the Sindh government related to their detention "null and void". However, the provincial and jail authorities have not released them as yet.

On Thursday, the lawyers for the four accused filed an appeal in the Sindh High Court and also asked for contempt proceedings against the provincial and jail authorities after which the court issued notices to the two authorities for a hearing on January 7. In April, a two-judge Sindh High Court bench commuted the death sentence of 46-year-old Sheikh to seven years imprisonment. The court also acquitted his three aides who were serving life terms in the case – almost two decades after they were found guilty and jailed.

However, the Sindh government refused to release them and kept them in detention under the Maintenance of Public Order.

Their continuous detention was challenged in the Sindh High Court, which ordered their release last week. However, the Sindh government said it will not release them in view of the Supreme Court’s September 28 order.

A three-judge apex court bench headed by Justice Mushir Alam, which is hearing the appeal by the Sindh government and the family of the slain journalist against the acquittal of Sheikh, on September 28 noted that till the next date of hearing, the accused shall not be released.

In the appeal petition, the lawyers for the four men said that the Sindh High Court had set aside the conviction order of the trial court in April and last week the high court also declared the preventive detention orders of the provincial government illegal and ordered the jail authorities to release them.

The counsel said they had approached senior jail officials on December 24 and provided jail authorities with certified copies of the court order for the release of the petitioners, but they insisted on verification of the order from the Sindh High Court. On December 26, the verification of order was also provided to the jail administration, but they refused to set them free.

The US has been mounting pressure on Pakistan, demanding justice for Pearl.

Early this week, the US has said it is ready to take custody of Sheikh, asserting that Washington will not allow him to evade justice.

"We cannot allow him to evade justice for his role in Daniel Pearl’s abduction and murder," Acting US Attorney General Jeffrey A Rosen said on Tuesday.

"We understand that Pakistani authorities are taking steps to ensure that Omar Sheikh remains in custody while the Supreme Court appeal seeking to reinstate his conviction continues,"Mr Rosen said in a statement released by the US State Department.

"The separate judicial rulings reversing his conviction and ordering his release are an affront to terrorism victims everywhere," he said.

"We remain grateful for the Pakistani government’s actions to appeal such rulings to ensure that he and his co-defendants are held accountable. If, however, those efforts do not succeed, the United States stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial here," he 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 in 2002 on the links between the country’s powerful spy agency ISI and al-Qaeda.

Pearl’s murder took place 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 a prison term in India for kidnappings of Western tourists in the country.

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