Pearl is dead, key suspect tells court

Journal reporter's kidnapping case, Ahmad Saeed Omer Sheikh, Thursday told a Pakistani court that he was sure Daniel Pearl was dead, without giving any details where and when the American journalist was killed. Officials said they would reserve judgment until a body was found, and the newspaper said it remained confident Pearl was alive.

Omer Sheikh was brought to the Anti-Terrorism Court No. 3 of Justice Arshad Noor Khan with his face covered by a shawl under heavy security blanket in an armoured personnel carrier escorted by 20 police mobile vans carrying personnel of police, Rangers and other law-enforcement agencies.

Bespectacled Omer Sheikh in front of the judge confessing his crime said: "As far as I know, Pearl is dead and I don't want to defend this case as I kidnapped him." He gave no details about where or when the 38-year-old journalist was allegedly killed.

Justice Arshad Noor appeared in the courtroom at about 11:45 am. Pakistan southern province of Sindh's Advocate General Raja Qureshi requested the judge for the formal production of accused in courtroom which was accepted.

The court asked the advocate general to uncover the face of the accused for confirmation whether he was Omer Sheikh or not. The AG objected and said it was a high profile case and journalists could capture the moment, which may cause unnecessary publicity of the case.

The investigation officer informed the court that police had arrested three accused on whose interrogation it was found that Omer Sheikh was financing them.

Omer Sheikh uncovered his face during the arguments despite police objection and requested the court to provide security to his family presently residing in the eastern border city of Lahore as they were receiving threat calls.

Omer Sheikh said he was pleased with the activities he had done. "Right or wrong I had my reasons and I think that our country shouldn't be catering to America's needs." However, he requested the court to provide him medical facility and ordered complete medical check-up during police custody from any unbiased doctor.

The chief suspect said he had surrendered on February 5 to protect his family and friends from police harassment and was not arrested by the police. He said he was firm that the US would ask the Pakistan government for his extradition, adding that the government of General Pervez Musharraf should not listen to their demands.

Omer Sheikh denied earlier reports in which he was quoted as saying that the police had not tortured him. He, however, termed the behaviour of Karachi police as better than that of the Lahore. The whole proceedings of the court took 15 to 20 minutes after which he was remanded to police custody till February 25.

No representatives from the Wall Street Journal were present at the court proceedings. Pearl's wife, Mariane, who is pregnant with the couple's first child, also did not attend.

Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider cast doubt on Omer's statement. He said: "Until the body is found we cannot believe what Omer is saying. We need proof or evidence. We will continue to work on him, grind him, ask him 'where was Pearl kept? Where is his body?' Omer himself admitted he masterminded and planned this crime." The newspaper, Wall Street Journal, said in a statement received that it was confident that its reporter Daniel Pearl was alive. "We continue to remain confident that Danny is still alive," the brief statement said.

Pakistan southern Sindh province police chief Syed Kamal Shah, addressing a press briefing, claimed Pearl was alive and likely to be recovered within the next couple of days. "Omer is very sharp minded and clever criminal. He was not ready to make any revelation when asked during interrogation on who killed Pearl if he is dead and where his body was," he held.

Earlier, Omer had denied any knowledge of the present situation of Pearl and his kidnappers. Omer's statement to the court came after Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf said at the White House that he was "reasonably sure" that the reporter was alive. "We are as close as possible to getting him released," Musharraf said at a joint press conference with US President George W. Bush on Wednesday. Musharraf said Pearl's abduction was a reaction to a wide-ranging crackdown on militant organisations initiated in the wake of September 11 attacks in the United States.

Omer was arrested in the eastern border city of Lahore Tuesday, ending a massive manhunt involving the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

He is believed to be a member of the banned militant group Jaish-i-Muhammad. The Jaish had denied any links with Omer. Omer was released along with Maulana Masood Azher on December 31, 1999, in swap of passengers of hijacked Indian airliner. Azher later formed Jaish-i-Muhammad.

Reacting to Omer Sheikh's statement before the court Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson Aziz Ahmed Khan said government would not give any credence to the statements by Omer Sheikh.

"He (Sheikh) has been changing his statements from day-to-day and we cannot give any credence to any of the statements that he gives. A day or earlier, he had said that Daniel is alive," the spokesperson said.

Omer Sheikh was arrested in 1994 in India for kidnapping Western tourists in the northern Indian Himalayan state of Kashmir. The kidnappers then had demanded the release of Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in the contested region. Omer was shot and wounded by police and the hostages were freed unharmed.

He spent the next five years in jail, but was never tried. Jamil Yousuf, head of citizens-police liaison committee involved in the investigation, said Omer asked the kidnappers on February 5 to release Pearl. Since then he has not been in touch with Pearl's captors.


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