Sunday, Nov 27, 2022

Burying The Case

The case relating to the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl continues to be in a limbo, while one of the dramatis personae, a former officer of ISI, could be rewarded with an ambassadorial appointment

The case relating to the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, the US journalist, in the beginning of last year continues to be in a limbo, with no action by the government of Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf to have the hearing on the appeal filed by the accused expedited.

In the meanwhile, one of the dramatis personae - a former officer of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who used to be the handling officer of Omar Sheikh, the principal accused, and one of the handling officers of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar - the Taliban leader - could be rewarded with an ambassadorial appointment.

On July 15, 2002, a special anti-terrorism court in Hyderabad, Sindh province, found Ahmed Omar Sheikh, Syed Salman Saquib, Sheikh Muhammad Adil and Fahad Naseem guilty of the kidnapping and murder of Pearl. While Omar Sheikh was sentenced to death, the other three were sentenced to life imprisonment. Shortly thereafter, they appealed against their sentences before a division bench of the Sindh High Court.

Though it is now a year since the appeal was filed, there has been no progress in the hearing of the appeal. The defense lawyers have repeatedly absented themselves from the court, an action that has already adjourned the hearing six times. The sixth adjournment was granted on September 25. The case has now been fixed for hearing on October 21.

The court warned that if the defense lawyers do not appear on that date, it would dispense with their services and appoint a government lawyer to defend the accused.

Pakistan's Anti-Terrorism Act, which has been repeatedly amended by successive governments to ensure expeditious disposal of the trial and the appeal in terrorism-related cases, contains adequate provisions for preventing such repeated adjournments and other means for delaying a trial.

When Musharraf had former prime minister Nawaz Sharif prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Act, the prosecution under his instructions ensured that the trial was disposed of and Sharif convicted within the time limits laid down by the act. In the case relating to the murder of Pearl, the prosecution itself has apparently been colluding with the defense lawyers and has refrained from moving the court to stop the delaying tactics repeatedly adopted by the defense lawyers.

In the meanwhile, Brigadier (retired) Ejaz Shah, Home Secretary of Punjab, before whom Omar Sheikh had surrendered in February last year, has reportedly been selected by Musharraf for posting as Pakistan's ambassador to Indonesia.

Before joining as home secretary, Punjab, he worked in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and was once Omar Sheikh's principal handling officer, as well as one of bin Laden's and Mullah Omar's. When the Lahore and Karachi police started searching for Omar Sheikh after the kidnapping of Pearl, he surrendered to Ejaz Shah as he was afraid that the Karachi police might torture him.

Ejaz Shah immediately informed General Mohammad Aziz Khan, presently chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, who was No 2 in the ISI until October 1998, and the two carefully debriefed Omar Sheikh as to what he should tell the police during his interrogation. He was kept in their informal custody for a week and, thereafter, handed over to the police, who were told to announce that they had arrested him while searching for him, without mentioning that he had voluntarily surrendered to Shah.

Aziz and Shah did not want Omar Sheikh to admit to the Karachi police any role in the explosion outside the Legislative Assembly of Jammu & Kashmir in October, 2001, in the attack on the Indian parliament in December, 2001, and about his having told Lieutenant-General Ehsanul Haq, the present director general of the ISI, who was Corps Commander in Peshawar before October, 2001, about the plans of al-Qaeda to carry out terrorist strikes in the US.

However, Omar Sheikh disregarded their advice and told the Karachi police about these events. The News, a prestigious daily, came to know of some of his confessions to the Karachi police. The editor of the paper rejected a request from the ISI not to publish the story. Musharraf thereupon forced the owner to sack the editor, who went into exile in the US fearing a threat to his life from the ISI.

Thereafter, Musharraf selected Shah for posting as High Commissioner to Australia, which reportedly refused to give its agreement to his appointment. It is now learnt that Musharraf has instructed his Foreign Office that he should be sent as ambassador to Indonesia. It remains to be seen whether Jakarta agrees.

If it does, this will be the fourth instance in recent years of ex-ISI officers being appointed to head Pakistani diplomatic missions in this region. The other three missions are those at Pyongyang, North Korea, which has always been headed by an ISI officer who had worked in the division responsible for the clandestine procurement of nuclear materials and missiles; Kuala Lumpur, which is the nerve center for supervising the activities of the Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Islamic missionary group founded in India 75 years ago, in the Southeast Asian region, Australia and New Zealand; and Bangkok, which is a suspected transit point for the infiltration of terrorists into India by air.

B Raman is Additional Secretary (ret), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and presently director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai