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Daniel Pearl’s Kidnapper Goes Free

photograph of journalist Daniel Pearl displayed at a memorial concert.
Daniel Pearl World Music Days Concert, Oct. 14, 2011. Photo courtesy the American Center Mumbai.

A Pakistani appeals court reopened ancient but still-painful wounds yesterday when it reversed the convictions of four men in the 2002 kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

The two-judge panel of the Sindh High Court in Karachi said it would free Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a Briton with a terrorism record stretching back to the early 1990s. Sheikh had been sentenced to death for Pearl’s murder. The panel upheld Sheikh’s conviction for organizing the abduction of the American journalist but reduced his sentence for it to seven years, with credit for time served. The judges threw out the kidnapping convictions of three other men, who had been sentenced to life in prison by a special anti-terrorism court in 2002.

Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was in Karachi to try to locate and interview a Pakistani cleric who allegedly assisted Richard Reid. Reid was behind the failed attempted bombing in December 2001 of an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. Pearl was taken on Jan. 23, 2002 by militants while en route to what he thought was a meeting with the cleric; the supposed meeting was a setup. He was murdered nine days later. Before killing Pearl, his captors forced him to issue a videotaped statement acknowledging his Jewish background and making anti-American statements. A graphic video of his murder was delivered to American diplomats, and a version of it appeared online.

American teenagers who expect to cast their first presidential votes in this fall’s election would know of Pearl's murder only from history lessons. A few may have seen the critically praised but commercially lackluster 2007 film “A Mighty Heart,” in which Angelina Jolie played Pearl’s wife, Mariane. Mariane Pearl was five months pregnant with their son when her husband was killed; the film is based on her memoir of the same name. But anyone old enough to remember 9/11 also remembers Pearl’s abduction and murder. For many of us, it might as well have occurred last month.

Together with the 9/11 attacks and the failed “shoe bombing” attempt by Reid later the same year, Daniel Pearl’s abduction and beheading brought into sharp focus the mindlessness we confronted at that moment. Acting in the name of a faith that renounced them, al-Qaida and its fellow travelers waged self-proclaimed jihad against brokers and busboys and, when opportunity arose, against journalists who wanted to promote some sort of understanding of their thinking. There were also elements among some supposedly allied governments (notably Pakistan’s) that found these violent actors and their warped views occasionally useful, and thus gave them shelter.

This is how we came to view the struggle at that moment as good against evil, as simple as a comic book. Real life, however, is not a comic book. Good does not always comport itself with comic-book clarity. Most of the excesses and errors on our side arose in this context.

Those excesses reverberate today. The reversal of Sheikh’s murder conviction rested in large part on the fact that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has, according to multiple reports, confessed to having killed Pearl. But his confession came after extensive confinement in CIA-run dark sites. There, Mohammed was waterboarded scores of times. Under these conditions, he confessed to dozens of terrorist attacks and plots.

An investigation that grew out of a Georgetown University journalism project concluded that Mohammed did, in fact, kill Pearl. News outlets have said that American intelligence agencies reached the same conclusion. Mohammed has not been charged with that murder, however. He and other defendants are currently scheduled to go on trial next January for war crimes in connection with the 9/11 attacks. These charges carry a possible death penalty. It remains to be seen whether this trial date – the first ever set for the alleged 9/11 mastermind and his surviving alleged close accomplices – holds up, particularly in light of the current coronavirus pandemic.

In Pakistan, prosecutors reacted laconically to this week’s appeals court ruling. They did not immediately state whether they would appeal the decision or try to block the release of Sheikh and his three co-defendants. In a comment to Reuters, later reported by the Pakistani outlet Geo News, provincial prosecutor general Faiz Shah merely said, “We will go through the court order once it is issued, we will probably file an appeal.”

To American eyes, a seven-year sentence for plotting and carrying out Pearl’s abduction hardly seems like justice, particularly in light of the purported handover of Pearl to Mohammed and fellow al-Qaida operatives. Sheikh and his co-defendants may not have killed Pearl with their own hands, but their actions led directly to his death. But coming from a Karachi court, yesterday’s result is not particularly surprising.

American conduct in the fight against al-Qaida in particular and terrorism in general is hardly faultless. The scope of that conduct has complicated and compromised our own justice system’s operations. The worst of the excesses, notably waterboarding, probably did much more harm than good. Yet most of those mistakes and misbehaviors were committed in the hope of anticipating and avoiding future attacks aimed at taking innocent life. They do not in any way equate to the hijacking of airplanes to crash them into office towers, or luring a journalist to his abduction and murder.

We should own up to our own failings, but we should not conflate them with what we are fighting. Daniel Pearl survived nine days in captivity. His abductor lived 18 years to successfully appeal his conviction. The man who says he murdered Pearl (a minor crime against the scope of his other alleged atrocities) is set to receive a trial that will likely extend past the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This struggle is still a conflict between good and evil. Anyone with civilized values ought to have no doubt which is which.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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