The Pakistan Supreme Court’s order for the release of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, convicted by a trial court for the 2002 killing of The Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl, shows that Pakistan still believes it can get away with playing fast and loose on terrorism. No one should be surprised if high government functionaries in Pakistan laud the “independence” of their judiciary to explain this denouement. After all, that is what they have forwarded as justification of their failure to punish the perpetrators in the Mumbai terror attacks case. On an appeal from Omar Sheikh and his family against his conviction by the trial court, the Sindh High Court acquitted him last year of the charge of murder, held him guilty of the lesser charge of abducting Pearl, gave him seven years in prison, and released him, deeming that as he had been in jail 18 years, the sentence had been served. A phone call from Washington ensured that Sheikh was not released, and placed in preventive custody.
It is true that the investigation left too many loose ends. A proper probe would have laid bare the links between the ISI, al Qaeda, Jaish e Mohammed and the rest. The prosecution was unable to build a watertight case at the trial stage, and the court convicted him only because it was a national imperative, with the Bush administration breathing down Pervez Musharraf’s neck. The ISI chief of the time is now Interior Minister in the Imran Khan government. All this only demonstrates that Pakistan is like a habitual violator of traffic rules who stops at red lights only upon spotting a policeman. While the Sindh government has said it will go in for a review petition, there can be no under-estimating Sheikh. A member of the Harkat ul Ansar and released from an Indian prison like his fellow traveller Masood Azhar in exchange for the IC 814 hostages, he showed an ability to destabilise the region even from jail. By means of a satellite phone, days after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, he called then Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, pretending to be Pranab Mukherjee, then the External Affairs Minister, and threatened war against Pakistan.
India cannot be blamed for wondering if Pakistan will ever punish the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks. Lashkar-e-Toiba leader Hafiz Saeed’s jail sentence was handed down by a lower court, and came at a time when Pakistan was under great pressure from the Financial Action Task Force. It is not linked to the Mumbai case. It would be no surprise if the “independent” higher courts set him free, as they have done in the past when he was detained preventively.