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Pakistani Judge Sentences Sheikh Omar to Death for Pearl Murder - 2002-07-15

An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has convicted four men of kidnapping and murdering American reporter Daniel Pearl. Chief defendant British-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh has been sentenced to death.

The judge of the special anti-terrorist court handed down the verdict behind the closed doors of the city's heavily-guarded prison, where the trial was held.

Prosecutors and the judge arrived in heavily armed convoys to announce the final decision in the high profile case. All roads to the prison were blocked off and armed policemen were on the roofs of nearby buildings. Reporters were barred from the courtroom where Judge Ali Ashraf Shah gave the ruling.

Chief Prosecutor Raja Kureshi gave details of the judgement. "The learned court has awarded [the] death sentence to the principal accused, Mr. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh," he said. "Life imprisonment has been awarded to the remaining three accused persons on the charges of conspiracy, on charges of kidnapping for ransom, and on the charges of murder. And so far as international terrorism is concerned, it also conveys the message that such acts are to be controlled with an iron hand."

American reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered earlier this year in Karachi, while working on a story about Islamic militants in Pakistan. A videotape received a month later by U.S. diplomats in the city confirmed that The Wall Street Journal reporter was dead.

Defense lawyer Rai Bashir says there was no solid evidence to substantiate the charges against the accused. He said the judgement is meant to appease the United States, which is seeking extradition of the chief defendant, also known as Sheik Omar.

"This judgment has been got by the government by pressurizing the court ands this is not the verdict of a court with an impartial mind," Mr. Bashir said. "Today the strategy of Pakistan is to please America."

The defendants were also fined a total of $32,000. The chief prosecutor says the money will go to the widow of the slain reporter and his infant son. He says seven other suspects, including those who killed Mr. Pearl remain at large.

In the United States, Mr. Pearl's family said it is "grateful" for Pakistan's work to bring those guilty of the journalist's murder to justice. In a statement the family called for all further accomplices to be brought to justice

After the announcement of the verdict, British-born militant Omar issued a threatening message read by his lawyer. Sheik Omar said, "We shall see who will die first, either I or the authorities who have arranged the death sentence for me".

Pakistan is a key ally in the U.S.-led war against the al Qaida terrorist network and its followers. This policy has outraged many hard-line Islamic groups in Pakistan.

Hyderabad Police Chief Moazzam Jah Ansari says security has been tightened in the city and other parts of Pakistan to prevent violent reaction from extremist forces. All four defendants in the Daniel Pearl case have four days to challenge the verdict in a higher Pakistani court. Defense lawyers say they intend to do so.