By Aamir Latif
KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) - Following criticism from the U.S., Pakistan has stayed the release of the four accused, who were acquitted by a court in the murder case of Wall Street Journal reporter Danial Pearl, on "public safety" concerns.
The release of all the four accused, including the key suspect British-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, better known as Sheikh Omar, has been delayed under a 1960 Maintenance of Public Order, which allows the government to arrest a person, who can be a threat to the public safety, for a period of three months.
"In exercise of the power under section 3(A) of the Maintenance of Public Ordinance 1950, the Sindh government has sufficient reason to believe that Ahmed Omer Shaikh, Fahad Nasim, Syed Salman Saqib, and Sheikh Muhammad Adil, be arrested and detained for a period of 3 months from the date of arrest," said a government notification issued on late Thursday.
A two-judge bench of the Sindh High Court in the southern port city of Karachi on Thursday had overturned the convictions and acquitted all the defendants declaring that the prosecution had failed to prove the case against them.
The high court judgment invited an instant reaction from Washington that slammed the overturning of the convictions.
"Those responsible for Daniel’s heinous kidnapping and murder must face the full measure of justice," Alice Wells, the top US diplomat for South Asia, said in a Twitter post hailing the indications that the acquittal would be challenged in the Supreme Court.
In June 2002, an anti-terrorism court sentenced Sheikh to death and his co-accused Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib, and Sheikh Adil to life for the abduction and beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter.
Pearl, a former South Asia bureau chief of the WSJ, had been kidnapped in January 2002 and killed after a month in Karachi, when he was researching on a story about religious extremism.
His dismembered body was found on the northern outskirts of Karachi four months after his disappearance.
In 2011, an investigative report by Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. claimed that Sheikh and the other three accused had been wrongly convicted in Pearl's murder case.
The investigation led by Pearl's colleague, Asra Ansari, who had accompanied him during his Pakistan visit, claimed that the actual man behind his abduction and beheading was Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the self-proclaimed mastermind of 9/11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York.
Mohammad, who was arrested by Pakistani security forces and handed over to the U.S. in 2003, is currently awaiting trial at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Friday questioned the timing of the judgment.
"The timing of the judgment is surprising. It has raised questions over Pakistan's efforts for peace," Qureshi told local broadcaster Geo News.
He said Islamabad was assessing the U.S. reaction to the defendants' release.
To a question, Qureshi said the acquittal could be challenged in the Supreme Court but did not provide further details.