Sheikh’s acquittal Pakistan’s old game

Sheikh’s acquittal Pakistan’s old game

Omar Sheikh. Credit: AFP photo.

By upholding the Sindh High Court’s acquittal of British-born al Qaeda leader, Omar Sheikh, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has handed a victory to global jihadist and terrorist forces. Sheikh was convicted and sentenced to death by a special terrorism court for the horrific beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. His execution never happened. In 2020, the Sindh High Court overturned the guilty verdict. Pakistan’s Supreme Court has now echoed that ruling and ordered that Sheikh and three other accomplices be released from jail. A severe blow has been dealt to the international community’s efforts to fight terrorists and their heinous crimes via judicial processes.

It has laid bare yet again Pakistan’s weak commitment to fighting terrorism. Sheikh’s acquittal does not come as a surprise. Dozens of terrorists have walked free, thanks to the Pakistan government’s direct and indirect support to them. Rarely have prosecutors built solid cases against terrorists, especially those who enjoy the patronage of the Pakistani State. In the absence of solid evidence, courts have acquitted these terrorists.

This was true in Sheikh’s case as well. The arguments and evidence put forward by the prosecution before the Sindh court was flimsy. However, it did seem that the apex court would rule against him. Apparently, the prosecution had put forward a letter written by Sheikh in 2019 admitting to a role in Pearl’s killing. That evidence was expected to seal Sheikh’s fate. It did not. Why did the apex court ignore this vital evidence?

A notorious terrorist, Sheikh was in prison in India when the Vajpayee government was forced to free him to secure the release of passengers of the Indian Airlines flight 814 that was hijacked in 1999. His conviction in Pearl’s killing provided India some sense of justice. New Delhi’s anguish over his acquittal now is understandable. As India has said, this is a “travesty of justice.”

The Sindh government has said it will file a review petition to challenge the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Sheikh. It does seem, however, that little will come out of this process; this is likely to be nothing more than an eyewash. The United States has expressed outrage over the acquittal and has said it is ready to prosecute Sheikh in US courts. The US statement raises several questions. How serious is the US about bringing Sheikh to justice? Importantly, will Pakistan be willing to hand over an important ISI protégé to the US? Is Sheikh’s acquittal a prelude to a deal that Pakistan seeks to strike with the US?