The acquittal by the Sindh High Court in Pakistan of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in the case of the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl was foretold — an investigation with many holes, a loose case built by the prosecution, and an eco-system in which killing in the name of jihad is not a crime. His 2002 conviction in the trial court came at a time when Pakistan had joined the US “war on terror”, and Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler at the time, was under tremendous pressure from the Bush Administration to go after terrorist groups operating from Pakistan. The killing of the intrepid Wall Street Journal reporter, on assignment in Pakistan for a story on militant groups and their links to al Qaeda in that country, shocked the world, and left journalists everywhere, especially those covering Pakistan, shaken. It exposed the roots that al Qaeda had struck within Pakistani jihadist groups, and the complicity of sections, if not the whole, of the ISI.
It also made clear that the distinctions that Pakistan still seeks to make between jihadists on the basis of who they target — India, US or Pakistan — are specious. Who is Sheikh, after all? A British national who, during the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s, was ferrying relief supplies to the Bosnian side, and soon after that joined the Muzaffarabad-based Harkat ul Ansar, a group that had fought in the Afghan jihad and was closely linked to the Pakistani intelligence, and was then deployed in the proxy war in Kashmir. Masood Azhar, later of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, was also a member of this group. Both were caught in India separately and spent time in Indian jails, before the Vajpayee government turned them over to the Taliban at Kandahar in exchange for the hostages in IC-814. Azhar went on to form the JeM, and Omar Sheikh re-surfaced when he was caught for the Pearl killing. After the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Sheikh contributed to India-Pakistan tensions by making a phone call to President Asif Ali Zardari pretending to be the then Indian external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee. The Mumbai attacks trial itself has reached a dead end in Pakistan.
After a stern message from the US, describing the Sheikh acquittal as “an affront to the victims of terrorism everywhere”, the powers that be have re-arrested him under the Maintenance of Public Order law for 90 days. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has said the government would appeal against his acquittal. But who can guarantee that three months down the line, the Pakistan government will not blithely declare him “missing”, as it recently did with Masood Azhar. Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, has been a trailblazer in how to overturn an MPO arrest. Despite its own sufferings, Pakistan continues to play dangerous games with terrorism and militancy, nurturing the false belief that this is the way to achieving its strategic goals in south Asia.
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