Why Did Pak Acquit Omar Saeed Sheikh And How Will the US View It?

It is hard to imagine that Pakistan courts would acquit Omar Saeed Sheikh, without a nudge from the military.

4 min read
It is hard to imagine that both the Sindh High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan would acquit the mastermind and kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, a prominent US journalist, without a nudge from the military.

Seeing the tables turn, the Pakistani federal government unexpectedly announced on late Saturday, 30 January, that it would apply to become party to the review petition filed in the Supreme Court by the PPP’s Sindh government, which had been pursuing to have the conviction not set aside for the last one year – first in the Sindh High Court (SHC), which it lost, then in the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP), which it also lost, and as a consequence of which it filed a review petition in the SCP on Friday.

The insincerity of the Imran-Bajwa junta in joining the review petition is quite apparent, given it sprang onto the Sindh government’s coattails only after a menacing phone call by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The Acquittal

Not withstanding the lacunae in the original conviction of Omar Saeed Sheikh and the consequent acquittal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, it is a well-known fact that the superior courts in Pakistan are heavily influenced by the powerful military, which also runs the jihad factories.

It is hard to imagine that both the Sindh High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan would acquit the mastermind and kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, a prominent US journalist, without a nudge from the military.

Sheikh is, after all, a product of Pakistan’s own jihad project. It must be remembered that at the time of his murder in 2002, Pearl was investigating the links of Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” with Pakistani jihadi organisations and these organisations’ links with the Pakistani military intelligence agency ISI, when Sheikh lured him to his end.

Indeed, Omar Saeed Sheikh had surrendered to ex-ISI Brigadier Ijaz Shah – the then Home Secretary Punjab in Musharraf’s government and the now Federal Interior minister – and yet remained undiscovered by the police and other investigators. The police were furious. The ISI had been trying to hide his link to themselves. Despite evidence to the contrary, it was claimed that Sheikh had been arrested a week later from somewhere entirely unconnected to the ISI.

To avoid the Americans discovering more awkward details as to who Sheikh was working for and when, General Musharraf had insisted on not handing him over to the US; instead prosecuting Sheikh in a controlled environment at home.

The Pearl Project

The three-year-long Pearl Project that Asra Nomani conducted with Georgetown University and that ended in 2010, established that the murder of Pearl involved several Pakistani jihadi organisations, at the centre of which was Omar Saeed Sheikh (himself belonging to Harkat-ul-Mujahideen).

The Pearl Project, in fact, offers a window into the nexus of the Punjabi Taliban with the al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. The Punjabi Taliban consists of an alphabet soup, members of which reincarnate under new names when the international community pressured Pakistan to stamp down on these groups.

Punjabi Taliban like Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Harkat-ul-Islami (HuI), Hafiz Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) which resurfaced as Jamat-ud-Dawa (JeD), and still later as Falah-e-Insaniyat (FeI), etc., were all midwifed by Pakistan’s military intelligence agencies and remain under its benevolent care, save a sacrifice here or there for eyewash purposes.

When Omar Saeed Sheikh travelled to Karachi to abduct Pearl, he was helped by men from his own Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, based in Indian administered Kashmir, to internationalise the Kashmir cause, the Lashari-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the al-Qaeda.

Some of these men, like Amjad Farooqi, had also been involved in the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 814 in 1994, which resulted in the exchange of Sheikh himself, Masood Azhar (JeM) and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Why did India cut a deal to free its over 150 hostages?

“In Afghanistan, with the ISI and Taliban cooperating on the ground, any rescue mission was nigh impossible, and Indian authorities reluctantly cut a deal,” writes Paul Stott.

The kind of demands made by Pearl’s abductors may also hold the clue to why transnational terrorists are often held by Pakistan for long periods, to be brought out dusted and used for negotiations at an opportune moment. Bizarrely for a militant group, besides other things, they demanded either delivery of several F-16 fighter jets bought by Pakistan in the early 1990s, which the US had refused to deliver.

How America Is Likely to View the Acquittal

One has witnessed time and again, from Generals Pervez Musharraf to Ashfaq Kayani, Raheel Sharif, and now Qamar Bajwa telling the international community that Pakistan “made mistakes” in the past but that it has paid the highest price itself – as if that should assuage the world and that the world should believe in and support (read give dollars to) Pakistan in turning the corner and becoming a good world citizen eschewing terrorism.

Each time it turned out to be a ruse, a tactic to buy time, to fool the world, and to continue on its deranged policies. These policies have only lined the pockets of the generals and their cronies, and impoverished and isolated the people of Pakistan beyond imagination, besides taking innocent lives inside and outside Pakistan.

Many people in the new American administration will be old hands, including President Biden himself, who will have seen the decades’ long deceit for themselves. Others are sharp new cookies like Kamala Harris.

They ought to view the acquittal of Sheikh as a blackmail in the Afghan endgame in the minds of the Pakistani generals and through the lens of Dr Shakil Afridi’s continued incarceration, for helping to hunt down another precious terrorist, Osama bin Laden. The priorities of even the current regime should be crystal clear to the world.

(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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