ISLAMABAD — The U.S. warned Wednesday it won't allow a Pakistani man who was convicted and later acquitted in the 2002 murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl to evade justice after a provincial court in Pakistan ordered his release.
The warning from acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen comes days after the Sindh High Court in Pakistan's south overturned a government detention order that Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the key suspect in Pearl's slaying, should remain in custody.
Sheikh was convicted for his role in helping lure Pearl in January 2002 to a meeting in the city of Karachi, during which he was kidnapped. Pearl, 38, was killed the next month. He had been investigating the link between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, dubbed the "Shoe Bomber" after trying to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes. A gruesome video of Pearl's beheading was sent to the U.S. Consulate.
Sheikh, who was on death row for 18 years, was acquitted earlier this year of murdering the Wall Street Journal reporter from Encino, California. But he has been held while Pearl's family appeals.
"We understand that Pakistani authorities are taking steps to ensure that Omar Sheikh remains in custody while the Supreme Court appeal seeking to reinstate his conviction continues," Rosen said in a statement released by the U.S. Department of Justice. "The separate judicial rulings reversing his conviction and ordering his release are an affront to terrorism victims everywhere."
Rosen praised Pakistan for appealing the rulings to ensure that Sheikh and his co-defendants are held accountable. "If, however, those efforts do not succeed, the United States stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial here," he said.
Rosen said the U.S. "cannot allow (Sheikh) to evade justice for his role in Daniel Pearl's abduction and murder."
The latest development comes as authorities consider different legal options to continue holding Sheikh. Sheikh's lawyer Mehmood A. Sheikh, no relation, has called for his client's immediate release but there has been no indication from authorities when that could happen.
Sheikh was sentenced to death and the others to life in prison for their role in the plot. But in April, the Sindh High Court acquitted them, a move that stunned the U.S. government, Pearl's family and journalism advocacy groups.
The acquittal is now being appealed separately by the Pakistani government and Pearl's family. The government has opposed Sheikh's release, saying it would endanger the public. The Supreme Court, Pakistan's highest court, will resume its hearing Jan. 5.