ISLAMABAD (AP) — After 18 years of denial, the Pakistani suspect convicted and later acquitted in the 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl has told a court he played a "minor" role in the killing, the Pearl family lawyer said Wednesday.
A letter handwritten by Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh in 2019, in which he admits limited involvement in the killing 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 stunning turn of events came as a Pakistani high court is hearing an appeal of a lower court's acquittal of Sheikh, who was initially charged with murder in the beheading of Pearl. The appeal was filed by Pearl's family and the Pakistan government.
Nowhere in the three-page letter addressed to the Sindh High Court did the British-born Sheikh elaborate or say exactly what his allegedly "minor" role in Pearl's slaying involved.
The 38-year-old reporter from Encino, California was abducted Jan. 23, 2002. A gruesome video of his beheading was later sent to the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, after which Pearl's body was found in a shallow grave in a southern neighborhood of the city.
Pearl family attorney Faisal Siddiqi called Sheikh's confirmation that he wrote the letter a "dramatic development" and demanded the conviction and the death sentence for Sheikh be reinstated.
"This is very, very important because for the last 18 years the position of Omar Saeed Sheikh was that he did not know Danny Pearl, he never met Danny Pearl," Siddiqi told The Associated Press. "He had 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," he added.
In the letter, Sheikh writes that "my role in this matter was a relatively minor one, which does not warrant the death sentence." A copy of the letter was obtained by the AP.
Sheikh also admits to knowing who killed Pearl and alleges it was 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."
However, Sheikh's lawyer, Mehmood A. Sheikh, insisted that his client wrote the letter under duress and that he did not know or have any connection to Pearl.
The lawyer, who is not related to Sheikh, said his client described the conditions in his prison as "worse than the life of an animal" and wrote the letter in an attempt to get a hearing — not make an admission of guilt. "He wanted to be able to be heard," the lawyer said.
The appeal is expected to wrap up this week, said Siddiqi, the Pearl family attorney. He said he expects a quick decision after Sheikh's admission of involvement, even in a minor capacity, in Pearl's death.
"This changes everything," he said of the letter.
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 other suspects were sentenced 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 that 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.
By KATHY GANNON Associated Press
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