Militant sentenced to hang for Pearl killing

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

HYDERABAD, Pakistan -- Sentenced to hang for the kidnap-murder of a Wall Street Journal reporter, an Islamic militant threatened Pakistan's rulers Monday, saying "We shall see who will die first -- me or the authorities who have arranged the death sentence for me."

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh's threat was made in a statement read by a defense lawyer after the court convicted him and three accomplices in the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl.

President Pervez Musharraf should know "Allah is there and can get his revenge," said the statement by British-born Saeed, a 28-year-old former student at the London School of Economics. "Everybody is showing whether he is in favor of Islam or ... non-Muslims," in the jihad (holy war).

The trial has enraged Pakistan's Islamic militant movement, which considers Musharraf a traitor for backing the United States in the war against terrorism.

Saeed and his co-defendants -- Salman Saqib, Fahad Naseem and Shaikh Adil -- sat motionless as Judge Ali Ashraf Shah announced his verdict.

All four were convicted of murder, kidnapping, conspiracy to kidnap and tampering with evidence. Saeed's three accomplices got life sentences -- which in Pakistan means 25 years in prison.

Defense lawyers said they would appeal, a process that could take months or years. The last prominent Islamic extremist to be executed in Pakistan, Haq Nawaz, was hanged Feb. 28, 2001, for killing an Iranian diplomat a decade earlier.

The Pakistani president has the authority to commute sentences to life.

The 38-year-old Pearl disappeared Jan. 23 in Karachi while researching Pakistan's Islamic extremist community, including possible links to Richard C. Reid, arrested in December on a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives in his shoes.

In February, a videotape received by U.S. diplomats confirmed Pearl was killed. A body believed to be Pearl's was found in May in a shallow grave in Karachi, but results from DNA tests have not been announced. Seven other suspects are at large.

Prosecutors said Saeed lured Pearl into a trap by promising to arrange an interview with an Islamic cleric who police believe was not involved in the conspiracy.

The defendants were also collectively fined $32,000. Chief prosecutor Raja Quereshi said the money would go to Pearl's widow Mariane and their son, who was born after his father was killed.

U.S. officials welcomed the verdict, but the U.S. Embassy was on a heightened security alert. U.S. grand juries have indicted Saeed in the Pearl case and in the 1994 kidnapping in India of an American who was released unharmed.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States still has an interest in extraditing Saeed but would watch developments in Pakistan before deciding what to do. He urged Americans in Pakistan to remain vigilant about their safety.

The Pearl family, in a statement posted on its Web site, said it was "grateful for the tireless efforts" by U.S. and Pakistani authorities "to bring those guilty of Danny's kidnapping and murder to justice."

Saeed's father, Ahmed Saeed Sheikh, proclaimed his son's innocence and described the trial as a painful ordeal. "It's a horrible feeling," he said.

In London, Saeed's brother, Awais Sheikh, termed the conviction a "grotesque miscarriage of justice" and said the family "will not stand by and let one of its members be executed for a crime he did not commit."

The prosecution presented 23 witnesses, including taxi driver Nasir Abbas, who testified he saw Pearl get into a car with Saeed in front of a Karachi restaurant on the night the reporter vanished. The defense claimed the government coached the witness.

The defense produced only two character witnesses, Saeed's father and uncle.

The United Jehad Council, an organization of 15 Islamic militant groups, said the verdict "will definitely add to the hatred against America."

Although Pakistani authorities braced for a violent backlash, there were no reports of protests in the country late Monday. The trial began April 22 in Karachi but was moved here after prosecutors said they received death threats.

In Karachi, a hotbed of Islamic extremism, soldiers stopped and searched vehicles and police helicopters hovered above.

At Hyderabad Jail, police in camouflaged helmets, their rifles poised and ready, stood watch from nearby rooftops as the court went into session. Inside, about 500 police and paramilitary Rangers patrolled. About 2,000 security officers patrolled Hyderabad's rutted and chaotic streets.

Pearl's kidnapping was the first in a series of attacks against Westerners in Pakistan. On March 17, an attacker hurled grenades into Protestant church in the capital of Islamabad, killing himself and four others, including two Americans.

A bomb exploded May 8 in Karachi, killing 11 French engineers and three Pakistanis. Another explosion killed 12 Pakistanis outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi on June 14. Last weekend, grenades were thrown at a bus carrying European tourists in northern Pakistan, injuring a dozen people, most of them Germans.

Police said the key break in the Pearl case came in February when the FBI traced e-mails sent to news organizations announcing the kidnapping. The e-mails, signed by the previously unknown National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty, demanded better treatment for Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Agents traced the e-mails to Naseem, who led authorities to Saeed and the others, police said. Naseem's lawyer claimed his statement was coerced.

Saeed admitted his role in the kidnapping during a court appearance Feb. 14 but later recanted. The statement was not admissible because it was not made under oath.

"Right or wrong I had my reasons," Saeed told the court at the time. "I think that our country shouldn't be catering to America's needs."

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