Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the release of an Islamist convicted of beheading US journalist Daniel Pearl, a decision that has left his family in “complete shock”, lawyers said, adding that the court decision was a travesty of justice.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the decision “an affront to terrorism victims everywhere” and said Washington was prepared to prosecute Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in the US.
British-born Omar, who was the main suspect in the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Pearl, was acquitted by a panel of three judges.
“By a majority of 2-1, they have acquitted all the accused persons and ordered their release,” provincial advocate general, Salman Talibuddin said.
Omar and his co-accused are to be released immediately, Reuters is reporting.
Pearl, 38, was investigating Islamist militants in Karachi after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the US when he was kidnapped.
His case made headlines around the world after a gruesome video of his captors beheading him emerged weeks after he was abducted.
A high court last year commuted the death penalty of Omar to a life sentence and acquitted his three co-accused, citing lack of evidence.
The government and Pearl’s parents challenged that decision and pleaded to the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty. The Supreme Court turned down both pleas on Thursday.
Blinken said Washington is “deeply concerned” by the decision to acquit Omar and his co-defendants and “any proposed action to release them”.
Omar was indicted in 2002 by a federal grand jury in New Jersey on charges of hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking, resulting in Pearl’s death.
He also was indicted in 2001 in the US for the 1994 kidnapping in New Delhi, India, of an American tourist, who was rescued by police.
Pearl, who was the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief, went missing in January 2002.
The BBC describes how he had been researching links between Islamist militant activity in Karachi and British Islamist Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a passenger plane using bombs hidden in his shoes.
Prosecutors accused Omar of luring him to a meeting with an Islamic cleric. Pearl and Omar had built a relationship discussing concerns about their wives, who were both pregnant at the time.
Almost a month later, a video showing his beheading was sent to the US consulate in Karachi.