An anti-terrorism court this morning sentenced to death Sheik Omar Saeed for his role in organizing the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Three other religious militants who were found guilty of helping in the conspiracy to kidnap Pearl were sentenced to 25-year prison terms.
"Today's verdict confirmed that each of these four people were involved in hatching a conspiracy to kidnap and murder Daniel Pearl," said Raja Qureshi, the advocate general of Sindh Province.
A senior police official in Sindh Province said that today's verdict was "just the beginning of a long legal process that involves appeals in superior courts."
Saeed, who was born in Britain, was charged along with 10 alleged accomplices, seven of whom have not been apprehended. Sheikh had lived in Pakistan since he was released from an Indian prison as part of negotiations following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines passenger plane in January 2000. He had been jailed in connection with the kidnapping of four Westerners in 1994.
During his interrogation by the police in Karachi, Saeed had also claimed responsibility for at least three high-profile terrorist incidents in India since last September. These included a terrorist bombing at the Srinagar parliament that killed 17 people in October and a shooting spree at the Indian parliament in New Delhi in which 13 people were killed.
The three other men sentenced today -- Sheikh Mohammed Adeel, a police officer, Fahad Naseem, a computer expert, and Salman Saqib, a religious militant -- received 25-year sentences. According to the prosecution, they were responsible for sending e-mails claiming Pearl's kidnapping to the world media. The judge, however, did not link them to Pearl's murder. The trial, held for security reasons at Hyderabad prison, 100 miles north of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, was closed to the media. The court was moved there in May after prosecutors said they had found out about plans to attack Karachi central jail where the trial had been held since April.
The trial was conducted by Pakistan's special anti-terrorist courts, which were set up several years ago to speed up prosecutions by requiring cases to be heard and concluded within a limited period. The convictions from these special courts usually are overturned during the appeals process, where the superior courts hold open trials and examine the prosecution's case more intensely.
The case could take a new turn during the appeals process, as the police would be forced to finally confirm the arrest of at least two people who were allegedly directly involved in Pearl's murder.
Senior police officials have confirmed that they are holding a religious militant identified as Fazal Karim since May this year for his direct involvement in the murder and decapitation of Pearl in a secret cell just outside Karachi in the last week of Janauary. It was Fazal's confession that allowed the police to recover the reporter's dismembered body outside Karachi in May.
The arrest of another religious militant identified by the police as Ata-ur-Rahman, or Naeem Bukhari, was also not disclosed, but police and intelligence officials in Pakistan said they believed that he was the true mastermind of Pearl's murder.
"Both Bukhari and Fazal were present on the scene when Daniel was beingslaughtered, but their arrests were made when the trial was already inits final stage and the official confirmation of these crucial arrests would have completely derailed the prosecution's case," a senior police official said.
Several other police officials said that the evidence gathered from Fazal and Bukhari contradicts the evidence produced by the police in the trial court.
"Let's see how police handle this explosive stuff during the appeal, because they would have no other other option but to officially confirm the arrest of the at least two actual Pearl killers," an official said.