I was surprised and shaken when I read the news recently that a Pakistani court had overturned the conviction of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man convicted of masterminding the abduction of my friend Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
Saeed did not murder Danny himself, but he did lure him from his home and, one way or another, delivered him to his death. At his trial, Saeed — a militant jihadi who had been previously convicted of a separate kidnapping of Western tourists in India — was found guilty of murder and kidnapping.
He was sentenced to death, and he and three accomplices were sent to prison. That was 18 years ago. Now it seems, Saeed will be out on the street in three months if the prosecution can’t win a last-minute reversal in Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
The news of Saeed’s substantial change in fortunes jolted me back to the past, when Danny and I were fellow reporters for American newspapers in the pre-9/11 Arab and Islamic world.
We met in Tehran in May 1997, five years before his death, when we were both covering the Iranian presidential election campaign. As foreign journalists, we were asked intrusive questions by officers of the secret police. In stores and on the streets we watched the religious police inspect women’s head coverings. Giant posters of Ayatollah Khomeini glared down at us throughout the city.
Still, it felt like reform was in the air and hostility was at a minimum. Even at the gates of the former U.S. Embassy, where 52 Americans had been held hostage for 444 days after the revolution, an Iranian soldier told Danny and me: “We don’t hate Americans here. But we’re not allowed to say that.”
After that trip, Danny and I exchanged calls and emails, and we met again the following year in Kuwait. We were both waiting for visas to Iraq, where United Nations weapons inspectors were searching for Saddam Hussein’s stash of chemical and biological weapons. One day when we had nothing else to do, Danny and I took a trip to the Kuwait-Iraq border. On the road, we talked about Saddam Hussein and about Jerusalem, where I was based, and London, where he lived. Danny told me how much he wanted to get married and that he was thinking of moving back to the U.S. because his job was standing in the way of the life he wanted for himself.
That was the last time I saw him.
Danny’s death four years later mattered for many reasons. It mattered just as any murder matters, because a life was cruelly and unfairly and violently taken away. It mattered because he was a father-to-be, whose pregnant wife, Mariane, was waiting for him in Karachi, Pakistan. It mattered because he was a Jew and he was killed in an act of unabashed anti-Semitism. And it mattered because he was a journalist, and his execution ushered in a new era of wanton violence against reporters that continued with the killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both beheaded by Islamic State.
“The killing of Daniel Pearl transformed the landscape for journalists around the world and sent a message that they were legitimate targets for jihadi and militant Islamist groups,” Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me.
It should go without saying that the perpetrators of Danny’s murder need to be held accountable. Journalists need to be able to work; killers need to be punished. But here’s one of the complexities of the Middle East and of this case: Saeed’s trial was, to say the least, imperfect. He was found to be the mastermind of the abduction plot, and the one who hired the men who carried it out. But there were holes in the prosecution’s case — including the fact that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the notorious Al Qaeda operative who is still imprisoned at Guantanamo, subsequently claimed to have personally beheaded Danny (although he was never charged with the crime). Saeed was not present at the death. And there are questions about whether the confessions by Saeed’s co-defendants were coerced, whether evidence was manipulated and whether the experts who testified were sufficiently expert.
But as one human rights advocate noted, if you were to release all the criminals in Pakistan who have had their due process rights denied, well, the jails might be close to empty. Police corruption is all too common there and torture of suspects is an ongoing problem.
The fact is, even the high court that overturned the convictions of Saeed and his accomplices acknowledged that he planned the kidnapping and lured Danny to it. His actions led directly to Danny’s death. The U.S. State Department has called the reversal of the convictions “an affront to victims of terrorism everywhere.” The Committee to Protect Journalists called them “a devastating setback for justice.”
Though some of Pakistan’s investigative work is questionable, most of the prosecutors’ conclusions have been corroborated by the FBI’s in-depth inquiry, according to Asra Nomani, Danny’s friend and colleague at the Wall Street Journal who led a respected, multi-year investigation into the killing with a group at Georgetown University. Nomani’s report concluded that Mohammed probably was the person who beheaded Danny. But she too believes strongly that, for justice to be served, Saeed must not be released.
Pakistan obviously needs to clean up its act and reform its criminal justice system and Saeed obviously shouldn’t be punished for parts of the crime in which he did not participate.
But in the meantime, it would be wrong to throw open the prison doors and allow onto the streets the man who carefully and willfully planned the abduction that ultimately led to Danny’s brutal and tragic killing.