Daniel Pearl's Murderers Go Unpunished in Pakistan

Saeed Sheikh (second from right), father of Omar Sheikh, the Islamic militant sentenced to death for killing Daniel Pearl, and his cousin Sheikh Aslam (right) walk out of court with their lawyers after a hearing in Karachi. Rizwan Tabassum / AFP-Getty Images

In July 2002, a squeaky ceiling fan couldn't keep the room cool as a judge ruled four men guilty of the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who had been abducted in Karachi on Jan. 23 of that year. The guilty included the mastermind of the crime, Omar Sheikh, a former student at the London School of Economics and, improbably, a former chess champion. Sheikh was sentenced to death. In truth, there were many more than four people involved in the crime. The Pearl Project, a three-and-a-half-year investigation at Georgetown University published by the Center for Public Integrity, discovered that 27 men had a role, in an early nexus of Al Qaeda and Pakistan's own Punjabi Taliban. Besides the four convicted, four are missing or detained on other charges; five are dead, two of those killed extrajudicially. Fourteen men identified as suspects by the police are free and were never charged in the case. According to a police report, one suspect's family runs the Cheap Hardware Store in Karachi, with the email address cheap@screws.com.pk (an email to the address went unanswered and, in a call to the store, a person answering said he had "no connection" to the suspect).

The criminal-justice system in Pakistan is derelict. The country had 2,113 militant, insurgent, and sectarian terrorist attacks in 2010, which killed 2,913 people and injured 5,824. Scarcely anyone has been brought to justice in a system where suspects are sometimes prosecuted and convicted but most often get released on appeal. In Pearl's case, the convicted Sheikh may go free on appeal. In a WikiLeaked cable from 2006 published by The Guardian, a Pakistani official assured U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker that Sheikh "would be executed as sentenced." That hasn't happened. And uncharged in the Pearl case is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the alleged 9/11 mastermind: the Pearl Project discovered that the FBI and CIA have matched the vein pattern on his right hand to the hand of the killer in the video of Pearl's decapitation.

Khawaja Naveed Ahmed, a former defense attorney to three of the convicted men, now a judge, told the Project that judges are too "afraid" to execute Sheikh. In the U.S., political calculations have muddied a full accounting of the Pearl murder. But there can be no flinching from justice: the U.S. should extradite Sheikh for Pearl's kidnapping and prosecute KSM for his murder.

There is another twist: Pakistani police found a key witness to Pearl's murder in a dragnet following a May 8, 2002, suicide bombing that killed 11 French engineers. A policeman, Fayyaz Khan, caught a man called Fazal Karim, alleged to have been a guard at Pearl's place of sequestration. It was Karim, police say, who led them to Pearl's remains in Karachi on May 16, 2002. Yet according to a classified U.S. State Department cable, the government, intelligence, and police officials held a secret meeting that night at the home of the Sindh province home secretary in which they discussed covering up Karim's story. A police official at the meeting corroborated the account. In the cable, the U.S. consul general at the time, John Bauman, wrote that he heard that the officials listened to the news of the guard's arrest with "stunned disbelief," revealing their vulnerability: "Inspector General of Police Syed Kamal Shah, with his forehead in his cupped hands, kept saying, 'we walked right into a trap; we're all going to be arrested." Later, Bauman wrote to Washington that the Pakistani officials chose to keep the witness "secret." Pakistani officials have declined to comment, and numerous attempts to contact Shah have been fruitless.

Pearl's case is illustrative of the threat from extremism. If the facts were fully exposed, the case could have alerted the U.S. and its allies to the threat in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The U.S. ignores Pearl's case at its peril. The country is founded on the principles of justice. Too often in the "war on terrorism," the U.S. compromises core values in pursuit of shorter-term strategic objectives. This will only allow militant and extremist movements to grow bolder, and bloodier.

Karim, the alleged eyewitness to Pearl's murder, was never charged. He had five daughters when he went into custody. In freedom, he and his wife finally had a son. He is still involved in violent militancy, according to Pakistani police, as are other Pearl suspects, including one who builds suicide vests in Waziristan for use against a specific target: U.S. soldiers.

Nomani and Feinman Todd are codirectors of the Pearl Project, a faculty-student investigative reporting project at Georgetown University, funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The report, "The Truth Left Behind," can be read at publicintegrity.org.