The Supreme Court on Thursday allowed government authorities to move Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was on death row for 18 years before his acquittal in the 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl, to the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore.
A three-judge bench, headed by Justice Umar Ata Bandial, issued the order while hearing a petition filed by Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani heritage, against his continued detention.
During the hearing, Punjab Additional Advocate-General Faisal Chaudhry informed the court that Sheikh had submitted an application seeking his transfer from Karachi to Lahore, where his family resided. Earlier this week, a Punjab Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) spokesperson had said that Sheikh had been shifted from Karachi to Lahore due to “security concerns”.
Justice Bandial suggested that Sheikh could be moved to a GOR (Government Officers Residences) colony, which was a high-security area, directing the Punjab government to facilitate Sheikh in accordance with court orders.
“We are not satisfied with the continuous detention of this person,” the judge remarked, according to AFP.
“The detainee Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh shall be accommodated in a government building in which officers of jail reside.”
Chaudhry, the Punjab government counsel, informed the court that it had been decided to keep Sheikh in a colony of prison staff within the premises of Kot Lakhpat jail, and sought time for the transfer. He said Rangers and police personnel would have to be deployed if he was detained outside the jail.
At this, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah inquired why the government was seeking time if Sheikh was to be kept within the limits of the jail.
Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Khalid Jawed Khan assured the court that Sheikh would be transferred to the Lahore prison within a week.
The lawyer for Sheikh objected to the proposal, saying being held in the prison staff colony was akin to being detained in the jail and would hinder movement. However, the objection was overruled.
At the last hearing of the case on Feb 2, 2021, the Supreme Court had ordered authorities to move Sheikh from his death cell at the Karachi Central Prison to a government rest house with the provision of facilities for a normal life, albeit without access to the outside world through telephone, internet, etc.
The directives were issued after Attorney General Khan and Sindh Advocate General Salman Talibuddin had expressed concern that if Sheikh was released, he would either be taken away or may disappear.
During today’s hearing, the counsel for the men earlier convicted in the case informed the court that Sheikh Muhammad Adil, another former accused, was ill and needed treatment.
The court directed authorities to provide all necessary medical facilities to Adil. It also ordered the federal and provincial governments to submit reports of implementation of its orders in the court chambers.
The hearing of the case was adjourned for two weeks, while the court directed the Punjab chief secretary to appear at the next hearing.
On January 28, the Supreme Court — by a majority of two to one — had upheld the Sindh High Court’s (SHC) acquittal of Sheikh and ordered his release if he was not wanted in any other case.
The court had also directed that all the other accused — Fahad Nasim Ahmed, Syed Salman Saqib and Adil be released forthwith unless they were wanted in any other case.
The Sindh government and parents of the slain journalist had appealed the high court’s decision, but the apex court upheld the acquittal order.
Pearl’s murder and legal action
Wall Street Journal journalist Pearl, 38, was doing research on religious extremism in Karachi when he was abducted in January 2002. A graphic video showing his decapitation was delivered to the US consulate a month later. Subsequently, Sheikh was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to death by a trial court.
In its April 2, 2020, order, the SHC had overturned Sheikh’s conviction for Pearl’s murder but maintained his conviction on a lesser charge of abetting the kidnapping, for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
As Sheikh had been incarcerated since 2002, that sentence was counted as time already served by the high court. The SHC had also acquitted three other men who had earlier been sentenced to life imprisonment by a Karachi anti-terrorism court.
After their acquittal order, the provincial government placed them in 90-day detention under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) Ordinance, saying their release posed a threat to security.
On July 1, a fresh notification under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, extended their detention by three months, which was later extended by another 90 days.
But in December, the high court accepted a petition by the men against their continued detention and ordered their immediate release, declaring all notifications of the Sindh government related to their detention “null and void”.
Following the SHC’s order to release the four men, the Sindh government had filed an appeal with the Supreme Court seeking to keep them incarcerated, citing threats to national security if they were to walk free.