July 15, 2002 Monday 9:04 AM Eastern Time
By KATHY GANNON; Associated Press Writer
The British-born Islamic militant accused of masterminding the kidnap-slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was convicted Monday and sentenced to death by hanging. Three accomplices were sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.
Pakistani authorities braced for a violent reaction by Islamic extremists, already angry over President Pervez Musharraf’s support for the United States in the war against terrorism. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad went on a “heightened state of security readiness” after the verdict, spokesman John Kincannon said. “We’ll see who will die first, me or the authorities who have arranged the death sentence for me,” the defendant, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, said in a statement read to reporters by his lawyers.
“Musharraf should know that Almighty Allah is there and can get his revenge,” said Saeed, who was moved to the prison’s death row along with 79 other condemned inmates. “Now the jihad (holy war) between Islam and non-Muslims is going on and everybody is showing whether he is in favor of Islam or in favor of the nonbelievers.”
Judge Ali Ashraf Shah handed down the verdict against Saeed, a former student at the London School of Economics, and the others – Salman Saqib, Fahad Naseem and Shaikh Adil – in the heavily guarded jail where the trial was held after it was moved from Karachi for security reasons. Defense lawyers said they would appeal.
Saeed’s father, Ahmed Sheikh, said “an innocent man has been punished” because Musharraf wanted a conviction. The United Jehad Council, an organization of 15 militant groups, said the verdict “will definitely add to the hatred against America.”
The defendants were also collectively fined $32,000. Chief prosecutor Raja Quereshi said the money would go to Pearl’s widow Mariane and their infant son, who was born after his father was killed.
Seven more suspects, including those who apparently killed Pearl, remain at large.
Pearl disappeared Jan. 23 in Karachi while researching links between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, who was arrested in December on a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives in his shoes.
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.
A videotape received by U.S. diplomats in February confirmed that Pearl, 38, was dead. A body believed to be Pearl’s was found in May in a Karachi neighborhood. DNA tests are pending.
“We continue to mourn Danny Pearl,” said Steven Goldstein, vice president of Dow Jones & Co., parent company of The Wall Street Journal. “And we continue to hope that everyone responsible for his kidnapping and murder will be brought to justice. Today’s verdict is one step in that direction.”
In London, the British government welcomed the verdicts but opposed the death sentence for Saeed.
The Pearl family, in a statement posted on its Web site, said they were “grateful for the tireless efforts” by U.S. and Pakistani authorities “to bring those guilty of Danny’s kidnapping and murder to justice.”
“We hope and trust that the search for the remaining abductors and murderers will continue, so that all accomplices in this unthinkable crime will be brought to justice,” the Pearl family said.
Reporters were barred from the courtroom throughout the trial. Defense attorney Ria Bashir said all of the accused showed no emotion when the verdict was announced.
Bashir claimed the Pakistani government pressured the judge to appease the United States, which has sought Saeed’s extradition to face charges in the Pearl kidnapping and the 1994 abduction in India of another American who was freed unharmed.
“There was no evidence to substantiate the charges,” Bashir said. “The strategy of the Pakistani government is to please America even if Americans are crushing the Muslims.”
Soon after Pearl disappeared, Pakistani and U.S. news organizations received e-mails from the previously unknown National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty, demanding better treatment for Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
FBI 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 on the kidnapping during his first court appearance Feb.14 but recanted.
“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.” The statement was ruled not admissible because it was not made under oath.
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 witness was coached by the government.
The defense produced only two character witnesses, Saeed’s father and uncle.
Islamic extremists are rarely executed in Pakistan. The last prominent one was Haq Nawaz, who was hanged Feb. 28, 2001, for killing an Iranian diplomat a decade earlier. His death triggered bitter clashes between police and his supporters.
Authorities stepped up security throughout the country, especially in Karachi and around foreign embassies in the capital Islamabad. Police helicopters prowled the skies above Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and a center of Islamic extremism.
“We are worried about a terrorist attack,” said Hyderabad police chief Moazzam Ansari. “It could be toxic, water contaminating, it could be a car bomb, it could be an attack on a jail to try to free the accused … it could be to send a message to the government that if you come down hard on our people, then we will strike back.”
The Pearl kidnapping was the first of five attacks against Westerners in Pakistan this year. A grenade attack against a Protestant church in Islamabad on March 17 killed five people, including two Americans and the attacker, were killed.
On May 8, a car-bomb in Karachi killed 11 French engineers and three others, including the bomber. At least 12 Pakistanis were killed in a car bombing June 14 in front of the U.S. Consulate in Karachi.
A dozen people, including nine Europeans, were injured Saturday in an apparent grenade attack at an archaeological site north of Islamabad.
Saeed joined militant Islamic movements after traveling to the Balkans about 10 years ago. After training in Afghanistan, he went to India, where he was arrested in 1994 for kidnapping Westerners.
He was freed in December 1999 along with two other Islamic militants in exchange for the passengers and crew of an Indian Airlines jet that was hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.