KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — The four men imprisoned for killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl were not present during his beheading but were convicted of murder because Pakistani authorities knowingly relied on perjured testimony and ignored other leads, says a report released Thursday.
The results of the Pearl Project, an investigation carried out by a team of American journalists and students and spanning more than three years, raise troubling questions about Pakistan‘s dysfunctional criminal justice system and underscore the limits U.S. officials face in relying on Pakistani authorities.
The four men convicted in the killing did help kidnap the American journalist, according to the investigation. But it says forensic evidence known as “vein-matching” bolsters the confession of al Qaeda No. 3 Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, to having killed Pearl.
The report says at least 14 of 27 people involved in abducting and murdered Pearl in 2002 are thought to remain free. And the four who have been convicted could be released if their appeal is ever heard because of false and contradictory evidence used in their trial.
Pearl, 38, was abducted from this southern port city on Jan. 23, 2002, while researching a story on Islamist militancy after the Sept. 11 attacks. On Feb. 21, 2002, a video of Pearl’s killing was delivered to U.S. officials in Pakistan. His remains were found in a shallow grave on Karachi’s outskirts three months later.
Within months of Pearl’s disappearance, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani heritage, and three accomplices were caught, charged, and convicted of murder and kidnapping. Sheikh, called the kidnapping’s mastermind, was sentenced to death in July 2002. The three others were given life terms, which in Pakistan usually means 25 years.
Since then, the men’s appeals have gone nowhere in the courts, despite dozens of hearings. Both the defense and the prosecution blame each other for stalling tactics. And there is constant speculation that Sheikh is being protected, possibly by Pakistani intelligence agencies.
Defense attorney Rai Basheer said the prosecution knows it would lose on appeal and is delaying the process, but prosecutor Raja Qureshi dismissed those claims.
“I challenge the defense to come and attend the case properly and consistently, and they will themselves know whose case is weak,” Mr. Qureshi told the Associated Press.
The Pearl Project’s findings appear to strengthen the defense’s hand.
For instance, it finds significant discrepancies between Pakistani police reports and later court testimonies, including that of a taxi driver whose account was considered crucial to the conviction.
Authorities apparently cajoled the driver to change his earlier story and, while testifying, place Sheikh with Pearl near the restaurant where the journalist was picked up by his abductors, the report says. But Sheikh is believed to have left Karachi before other men he had recruited carried out the kidnapping.
At the same time they were building their case against Sheikh and the three others, investigators did not pursue leads provided by another suspect in custody. That man, Fazal Karim, purportedly was one of the guards holding Pearl hostage and was there during his slaying. Karim also led investigators to Pearl’s grave.
But his account differed from the taxi driver’s, thus threatening the prosecution’s case against the four on trial. U.S. officials pushed the Pakistanis to restart the trial to include all the evidence, but the prosecutor argued that doing so would give the defense a huge advantage. So Karim’s account didn’t make it to court, and he was later set free.
The murder case against the four convicts also appears weakened by Mohammed’s suspected role.