By: Amir Zia, Associated Press Writer
(AP) A court in Pakistan on Friday set an April trial date for four men accused in the kidnap-slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl — a case widely seen as a test of Pakistan’s commitment to combat religious extremism.
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the alleged mastermind of the Jan. 23 kidnapping, and three accomplices will face trial April 5 before an anti-terrorism court on charges of murder, kidnapping and terrorism, chief prosecutor Raja Quereshi said. The trial will be held at a jail for security reasons.
Saeed asked that his case be heard before a religious court based on Islamic law, but Judge Shabir Ahmad refused. Islamic courts in Pakistan do not deal with murder cases, focusing instead on adultery or civil disputes.
Family and friends of the defendants gathered outside the judge’s chambers. Saeed attempted to scream a message to the crowd after leaving the courthouse, but police pushed him into an armored personnel carrier and whisked him back to jail.
Security for the brief hearing was extremely tight, with police ringing the colonial-era courthouse amid concerns that Saeed’s accomplices might launch an attack to try to free him.
A second defendant, Sheikh Mohammed Adeel, also appeared at the courthouse in this southern port city. Two others in custody did not attend the hearing. A total of 11 people have been accused in the case.
Saeed, 29, was indicted March 14 by a federal grand jury in New Jersey in the kidnapping and slaying of the 38-year-old reporter, whose wife is about to give birth to their only child. The charges carry the death penalty.
But Pakistan has said it would prosecute Saeed first before deciding whether to hand him over to the United States. The two countries have no extradition treaty.
A senior investigator, Manzoor Mughal, told reporters that fresh evidence had emerged linking Saeed to the crime, including proof that Pearl and Saeed met in a hotel in Rawalpindi, a city just outside the capital, Islamabad. The meeting is important because it suggests that Saeed planned the kidnapping well in advance.
U.S. authorities also unsealed an indictment from last year charging Saeed in the 1994 kidnapping of an American in India.
Pearl, the Journal‘s South Asian bureau chief, was kidnapped while researching links between Pakistani extremists and Richard C. Reid, who was arrested in December on a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives in his shoes.
The case is widely seen as a barometer of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s commitment to combat Islamic extremism in Pakistan.
The nation had cultivated ties to militant groups, including those fighting Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and also had been the closest ally of the Afghan Taliban until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. After that, Musharraf abandoned the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies and threw his support behind the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
Under pressure from the United States and India, Musharraf in January banned five Islamic extremist groups, two of them accused by India of the Dec. 13 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. Saeed is believed to have links to one of those groups — Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed.
Last month, Saeed admitted during a court hearing that he was involved in the Pearl kidnapping but later withdrew the statement, which was not made under oath.
Much of the government’s case rests on the testimony of two key witnesses, including co-defendant Fahad Naseem. Police arrested Naseem after tracing e-mails sent to Pakistani and U.S. news organizations to his laptop. Naseem told police he sent the e-mails, which included pictures of Pearl in captivity, on Saeed’s orders.
Taxi driver Nasir Abbas has reportedly told police that he drove Pearl to a restaurant in Karachi the night he disappeared. Court documents show that Abbas identified Saeed as the man seen escorting Pearl into another vehicle.
Quereshi, the chief prosecutor, said he would call 31 witnesses, including FBI agents, to testify for the prosecution.