By: Zahid Hussain, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Opening arguments in the trial of four men accused in the kidnapping and slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl were postponed for more than a week, attorneys for both sides said Friday.
Chief prosecutor Raja Quereshi said the delay was to meet legal requirements for trying in absentia seven other suspects who remain at large. Journalists were again barred from the half-hour proceeding, which took place inside the Karachi Central Jail.
British-born Islamic militant Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, 28, and three co-defendants are in custody charged with murder, kidnapping. and terrorism. They face the death penalty if convicted.
During the session, Judge Arshad Noor Khan scheduled the entering of pleas and opening statements for April 22 after police said they could not find the seven other suspects, Quereshi said.
Khan formally declared them fugitives, paving the way for them to be tried in absentia along with the four others. However, Pakistani law requires a delay of at least a week before proceedings against the seven could be started.
Pearl, the Journal‘s South Asia correspondent, disappeared Jan. 23 on his way to a Karachi restaurant to meet an Islamic militant contact believed to have been Saeed. A few days later, e-mails sent by the previously unknown National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty announced his kidnapping and showed pictures of him in captivity.
A videotape received by U.S. diplomats in Pakistan on Feb. 21 confirmed Pearl, 38, was dead. His body has not been found.
During Friday’s session, Khan also ruled that the videotape was admissible and that prosecutors do not have to submit it to the defense until it is shown in court, Quereshi said.
Although journalists have been barred from both sessions, family members of the defendants have been allowed to attend.
The proceedings began April 5 but were adjourned until Friday to give the prosecution time to turn over copies of the e-mails sent to U.S. and Pakistani media announcing Pearl’s abduction. The defendants were arrested after authorities traced the e-mails.
Also Friday, the judge ordered a medical examination for defendant Salman Saqib, who is suffering from hepatitis C and complications from a bullet wound suffered in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban, according to his lawyer Khawaja Naveed Ahmed.
The other defendants in custody are Saqib’s cousin, Fahad Naseem, and Sheikh Mohammed Adeel, a former policeman.
Defense lawyers also said the judge took under advisement a defense motion to cite President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for contempt of court for remarks he allegedly made to Pakistani journalists that he believed Saeed should be executed. Quereshi said the motion would likely be rejected because Musharraf enjoys constitutional immunity.
Saeed, the alleged mastermind, has also been indicted in the Pearl case by a federal grand jury in New Jersey. U.S. officials also confirmed he was indicted secretly in the 1994 kidnapping of an American in India.
Musharraf has said his government would prosecute Saeed but punish him before considering whether to hand him over to the United States.
Saeed, who is believed to have trained in Afghanistan, was arrested in India after the 1994 kidnapping and was held for five years without trial. He was freed in December 1999 along with two other Islamic militants in exchange for the passengers and crew of an Indian Airlines jet that was hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Fearing Saeed’s accomplices might try to rescue him, officials decided to hold the trial in a special courtroom in the Karachi jail.