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Pakistan Suspect Claims His Role in US Reporter's Death Was 'Minor'

File - Lawyer Nadeem Ahmed Azar, L, and Sheikh Muhammad Aslam, brother of British-born Pakistani Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is charged in the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, talks to media outside a prison in Karachi, Pakistan, Dec. 24, 2020

In a dramatic turn of events, a man convicted and later acquitted in the 2002 killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl admitted a "minor" role in his death, upending 18 years of denials, the Pearl family lawyer said Wednesday.

A letter handwritten by Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh in 2019, in which he admits limited involvement in the death of the Wall Street Journal reporter, was submitted to Pakistan's Supreme Court nearly two weeks ago. It wasn't until Wednesday that Sheikh's lawyers confirmed their client wrote it.

The high court is hearing an appeal of a lower court's acquittal of Sheikh, charged with murder in the death of Pearl. The appeal was filed by Pearl's family and the Pakistan government.

The 38-year-old reporter from Encino, California, was abducted January 23, 2002. His body was later found in a shallow grave in a southern Karachi neighborhood.

FILE - Judea Pearl, father of slain American journalist Daniel Pearl, speaks at an event honoring the memory of his son, in Miami Beach, Florida, April 15, 2007.
FILE - Judea Pearl, father of slain American journalist Daniel Pearl, speaks at an event honoring the memory of his son, in Miami Beach, Florida, April 15, 2007.

Pearl family attorney Faisal Siddiqi called Sheikh's confirmation that he authored the letter a "dramatic development," demanding the conviction and death penalty be reinstated.

"This is very, very important because for the last 18 years the position of Omar Saeed Sheikh is that he did not know Danny Pearl, he never met Danny Pearl," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "He has taken a position of complete ignorance regarding this case, but now in a hand-written letter he has admitted to at least a limited role."

"He has not asked that he be acquitted. He accepts his guilt but asks that his sentence may be reduced," Siddiqi added.

In the hand-written letter, a copy of which The AP has received, Sheikh writes "my role in this matter was a relatively minor one, which does not warrant the death sentence."

He also admits to knowing who killed Pearl, naming Pakistani militant Atta-ur-Rahman, alias Naeem Bokhari, who has since been executed in connection with an attack on a paramilitary base in southern Karachi.

In the letter dated July 25, 2019, and stamped with the seal of the High Court of Sindh, Sheikh asks that he be given an opportunity to "clarify my actual role in this matter so that my sentence may be reduced accordingly to one which is consistent with the requirement of justice."

Sheikh's lawyer, Mehmood A. Sheikh, who is no relation, said his client wrote the letter under duress and denies he knew Pearl or had any connection with Pearl. He said his client described his condition in prison as "worse than the life of an animal.''

Sheikh, the lawyer, said his client wrote the letter in an attempt to get a hearing, not make an admission of guilt. Rather, "he wanted to be able to be heard."

The appeal is expected to wrap up this week, said Siddiqi. He said he expects a quick decision after Sheikh's admission of involvement, even in a minor capacity, in Pearl's death. "This [letter] changes everything," he said.

Sheikh was convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi, during which he was kidnapped. Pearl was 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.

Sheikh was sentenced to death and three others to life in prison for their roles in the plot. The acquittal last April stunned the U.S. government, Pearl's family and journalism advocacy groups.

Last month, acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffery Rosen warned the U.S. would not let Sheikh go free, saying if "those efforts do not succeed, the United States stands ready to take custody of Omar Sheikh to stand trial" in America.