By: Afzal Nadeem, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Pakistan intends to try the key suspect in the kidnap-slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl first before possibly handing him over to the United States for prosecution, an Interior Ministry official said Friday.
Meanwhile, another suspect in the case appeared in court Friday under tight security and amid fresh threats against police detaining suspected Muslim extremists here.
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the suspected mastermind of the crime, will be tried in Pakistan on charges dealing with Pearl’s abduction and killing by Islamic militants, Interior Ministry official Abdur Rasheed Khan told The Associated Press in Islamabad.
Pearl, South Asia bureau chief for the Journal, disappeared from this southern port city Jan. 23. A graphic videotape received by U.S. diplomats in Karachi last week revealed the 38-year-old journalist’s murder.
Saeed already was in custody when the tape confirming Pearl’s killing was received. He confessed his involvement in the kidnapping in court but later withdrew that confession, which was not made under oath.
The United States has not yet indicted Saeed in the Pearl case. U.S. authorities are seeking his extradition under a 1994 warrant for the kidnapping of another American.
Pakistan’s courts have ordered Saeed held at least through March 12 while investigators work.
A senior Pakistani diplomat told the AP on Wednesday that the government had “no objections” to handing Saeed over to U.S. authorities once proceedings against him here are finished.
On Friday, Salman Saqib, who was arrested after e-mails claiming responsibility for Pearl’s kidnapping were traced to him, made a statement before the judge in a closed-door hearing, chief investigator Manzoor Mughal said.
There was no immediate word on what Saqib said. The proceedings were closed to the public and press, and defense attorney Khwaja Naveed said he was barred on grounds that lawyers previously leaked details to the media.
During the hearing, Saqib complained about his health and the judge ordered he receive medical treatment in jail, Naveed said. Witnesses said Saqib was limping.
Saqib was brought to the courthouse in an armored personnel carrier escorted by a half-dozen police vans. Dozens of policemen carrying assault rifles and wearing flak jackets guarded him.
Saqib is believed linked to Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed, which has close ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network believed responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States. He allegedly met Saeed while fighting in Afghanistan.
Hours before Friday’s hearing, an anonymous caller warned authorities at the Karachi central prison that eight powerful bombs had been hidden around there.
The bomb squad cleared the building and searched for three hours, but found no bombs, prison official Amanullah Niazi said. Security around the prison was tightened.
On Tuesday, an anonymous caller threatened to blow up the Karachi crime investigation department — the building where Saeed, Saqib, and another suspect were being held — if Saeed were sent to the United States to stand trial.
The three suspects were transferred to a different jail on Thursday.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf risks a militant backlash if he accedes to the U.S. request for Saeed. He already is facing a violent reaction to his crackdown on extremist Muslim groups announced Jan. 12.
On Thursday, suspected militants ambushed a police bus in Karachi in an unsuccessful bid to free about 20 comrades arrested as part of that sweep. One policeman and a prisoner were killed, but no one escaped.
Some of the prisoners were members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, which also has been accused by India of staging a Dec. 13 attack on India’s parliament in New Delhi, prompting the largest military buildup on the subcontinent since 1971.
The other prisoners were members of two other outlawed groups.