KARACHI / ISLAMABAD:
A Pakistani court on Thursday changed the death sentence of the main person accused of kidnapping and murdering a Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, in 2002, and acquitted three other co-defendants on the matter.
All four had been convicted of Perle's kidnapping and murder, including Britain-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was sentenced to death in 2002 for thinking about the murder. He has been in prison for 18 years and is waiting for the result of an appeal.
The 38-year-old Pearl investigated militant Islamists in Karachi after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States when he was kidnapped in January 2002. His case hit the headlines worldwide after a video of his beheading had appeared weeks after Pearl's kidnapping.
"The prosecutor has provided no evidence that one of the complainants has been linked to Pearl's murder, and as such, all the complainants are acquitted," said a two-member Sindh High Court bank in a Reuters ruling .
The United States struck the sentence, and the leading US diplomat for South Asia wrote on Twitter that the sentence was "an affront to the victims of terrorism everywhere."
The court also acquitted all four charges of ransom for kidnapping the American and found Sheikh guilty only of kidnapping.
Sheikh has been sentenced to seven years in prison for kidnapping, but is expected to be released soon after time runs out.
"Omar has served for 18 years, so his release orders will be issued sometime today. He'll be out in a few days," Khawaja Naveed, a defender in the case, told Reuters.
A senior Pakistani government official telephoned Reuters that the state would appeal the Sindh High Court ruling.
"We welcome Pakistan's decision to appeal the verdict," said Alice Wells, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs. "Those responsible for Daniel's hideous kidnapping and murder must face full justice."
The Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the issue relates to the Home Office, "which will review the verdict in detail." The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment.
The convictions in Perle's murder were questioned after another defendant, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the suspected pioneers of the September 11, 2007 attack, informed a U.S. military court that he had beheaded Pearl.
In a statement, the Wall Street Journal said it continues to seek justice for Pearl's murder.
His widow Mariane Pearl was not immediately available for comment.
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Another lawyer who was not involved in the case told Reuters that Pakistan would likely have to release all of the accused while appealing.
"The prosecutor's office cannot stop her release in this case unless she presents an injunction from the Supreme Court," said Muhammad Farooq, a lawyer at the Sindh High Court, adding that the government could also try to get her through Application of a law to keep detained in order to maintain public order.
"Legally, they cannot stop their release in this particular case," said Farooq.
Sheikh was born in the UK and had a privileged upbringing before studying at the London School of Economics.
He was arrested in India in the 1990s because he was involved in the kidnapping of western tourists in 1994 when Sheikh supported Muslim separatists who were fighting Indian security forces in the disputed Kashmir region.
He was one of three men released from an Indian prison after militants hijacked an Indian airliner and flew to Afghanistan in late 1999, where the then-ruling Taliban government helped negotiate an exchange.
The Indian State Department has not responded to requests from Reuters for comments on the matter.
Indian police later linked Sheikh to the September 11 attacks and accused him of being involved in the $ 100,000 transfer to Mohammad Atta, one of the militants who flew planes into New York's World Trade Center.
Pakistan is currently being closely scrutinized by a global terrorist financing watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which highlighted the country's inability to prosecute terrorism cases.
"The situation in the FATF is very serious. I think the pressure will increase on Pakistan (after this judgment)," said Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank that is working to counter the terrorist Politics monitored in Pakistan. He added that Perle's case was top-notch and needed worldwide attention.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)