LAHORE: Despite being sentenced to death six years ago by an Anti Terrorism Court for the gruesome murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, his British-born Pakistani killer Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed is lucky enough to have dodged the gallows during all those years, mainly because the Sindh High Court has yet to decide his appeal against the sentence, even though the case hearing has been adjourned for over 100 times since 2002.

The 38-year-old American had travelled to Pakistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks and was abducted from Karachi on January 23, 2002, before being beheaded by Islamic militants while working on an investigative story about the alleged intelligence links of some Pakistani militant leaders. The killers of Pearl including Sheikh Omar Saeed, a London School of Economics’ graduate-turned-jehadi, and three of his accomplices, Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adeel, were put on trial on April 22, 2002. Almost three months later, the Karachi court handed down capital punishment to Omar Saeed Sheikh while his three accomplices were sentenced to life in prison.

Currently languishing in a Hyderabad jail, the accused instantly approached the Sindh High Court by lodging appeals against the Anti Terrorism Court verdict. But their appeals have not yet been decided for inexplicable reasons, despite a lapse of 75 months and over 100 adjournments. However, Omar Sheikh’s defence lawyer sees nothing unusual despite all these adjournments, saying that appeals in murder cases usually last for years and years. Rai Bashir, the defence lawyer, further maintains that the Pearl case has already taken a new twist, proving his contention that his client was innocent. Rai Bashir plans to use confession by the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, that he was the one who had beheaded Pearl.

Khaled Sheikh Mohammad had made this confession in the FBI custody, the transcript of which has already been made public by the authorities. Rai Bashir says he would use Khaled’s testimony as evidence that his client did not kill Pearl. "What we had been saying for so many years in the appeal is that Omar was innocent and he has not committed that murder. We are happy that this version has been verified by none other than the Americans after the arrest of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed", maintains Rai. He also plans to use Musharraf’s published memoirs in defence of Omar Sheikh. "President Pervez Musharraf’s book, ’In the Line of Fire’, will be mustered for an appeal against my client’s conviction because it indicated that alleged September 11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and another man had killed Pearl", the lawyer further maintains.

However, contrary to his lawyer’s contention, the hard fact remains that at his initial court appearance in April 2002, Sheikh Omar had almost confessed to his crime by stating before the court: "I don’t want to defend myself. I did this…. Rightly or wrongly, I had my reasons. I think our country shouldn’t be catering to American needs".

Sheikh Omar happens to be a British citizen of Pakistani descent who had first served five years in prison in New Delhi in the 1990s in connection with the 1994 kidnapping of three British travellers. However, he was released from captivity in 1999 along with the defunct Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar, and eventually provided a safe passage to Pakistan by the Taliban regime, after the Indian government was forced to accept the demands of the hijackers of Indian Airliner IC-814. Two years later, on February 12, 2002, he was arrested in Lahore, on charge of Pearl’s kidnapping. He, however, told the court that he was not arrested but had actually surrendered to Brig (Retd) Ejaz Shah, a former chief of the Punjab chapter of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

Subsequent Western media reports said Sheikh Omar is an ISI agent, also known as Mustafa Mohamed Ahmad who had wired $100,000 to the official ringleader of the 9/11 terror attack, Mohammad Atta from a Saudi Arabian account of the Standard Chartered Bank. On October 6, 2001, a senior-level US government official told the CNN that American investigators had discovered that Omar, while using the alias Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad had sent about $100,000 from the United Arab Emirates to Mohammed Atta. Hardly a month after the money transfer was discovered, the then director general of the ISI, General Mahmood Ahmad, was sacked. It was later reported by the American media that the FBI was investigating the possibility that General Mahmood Ahmad had ordered Omar Sheikh to send the $100,000 to Mohammad Atta.

With this background in mind, there are many in the Pakistani establishment who believe that Omar’s being a former intelligence agent might have helped him escape the gallows so far. He is presently detained in an isolated ward in Hyderabad Central Prisons and being guarded round-the-clock.

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