Pakistan orders man acquitted in Pearl murder off death row

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Ahmed Saeed Sheikh, right, father of British-born Pakistani Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, leaves with his lawyer Rauf A. Sheikh, following Daniel Pearl case hearing in the Supreme Court, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Pakistan's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the Pakistani-British man acquitted of the 2002 gruesome beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl off 'death row' and moved to a so-called government 'safe-house'. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the Pakistani-British man acquitted of the 2002 gruesome beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl off death row and moved to a so-called government “safe house."

Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh, who has been on death row for 18 years, will be under guard and will not be allowed to leave the safe house, but he will be able to have his wife and children visit him.

“It is not complete freedom. It is a step toward freedom," said Sheikh's father, Ahmad Saeed Sheikh, who attended the hearing.

The Pakistan government has been scrambling to keep Sheikh in jail since a Supreme Court order last Thursday upheld his acquittal in the Wall Street Journal reporter’s death, triggering outrage by Pearl's family and the U.S. administration.

In a final effort to overturn the acquittal, Pakistan's government as well as the Pearl family filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, asking it to review the decision to exonerate Sheikh of Pearl's murder. The family's lawyer, Faisal Siddiqi, however, said such a review had a slim chance of success because the same Supreme Court judges who ordered Sheikh's acquittal sit on the review panel.

The U.S. government has said that it would seek Sheikh's extradition if his acquittal is upheld. Sheikh has been indicted in the United States on Pearl's murder as well as in a 1994 kidnapping of an American citizen in Indian-ruled sector of the divided region of Kashmir. The American was eventually freed.

Sheikh was arrested by India after the 1994 kidnappings, but was among four terror suspects freed by India on Dec. 31, 1999, in exchange for the hostages on an Indian Airlines aircraft that was hijacked and taken from Nepal to then Taliban-controlled Afghan city of Kandahar.

The order sending Sheikh to a safe house would seem to be a concession to the federal government, as well as the government of southern Sindh province where Karachi is the capital. The Sindh government has refused successive orders to release Sheikh, even courting contempt charges from lower courts.