The Omar Sheikh saga: setting the record straight

Not only Pakistan but also most of the world has moved from being the hostage of the US-defined justice parameters

Durdana Najam February 04, 2021
The writer is a public policy analyst based in Lahore and be reached at [email protected]

He has been in jail for almost 20 years, accused in several crimes, considered of equal size and intensity. His release order from the Supreme Court was taken as the “travesty of justice and an affront to the victims of terrorism the world over”. The Pakistan government filed a review petition to have the SC reverse its order. In the latest development, he has been transported to a government’s guesthouse apparently for house arrest, which may lead to his eventual release once the dust settles on the issue.

Since the Supreme Court order, the United States is demanding the custody of Omar. The question is: is the demand justified?

No evidence in the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl has proved Omar Sheikh as the assassin. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad killed him and was subsequently handed over to the CIA in 2003 by the Pakistani government. According to the Sindh High Court’s June 2020 judgment, Omar’s name was illegally included under Section 11-EE of the Fourth Schedule of Anti-Terrorism Act 1997. This section applies to individuals listed in the United Nations Security Council’s 1267 sanctions list for terrorists aligned to Al Qaeda. However, Omar is neither in this list nor in the list of America’s most wanted. Although India has been periodically sending Pakistan lists of the most wanted that included Masood Azhar and six men accused of the IC-814 hijacking, Omar’s name was never mentioned in those lists either.

From this account, Omar’s implication reflects more as an act of appeasement to the US than to serve justice in letter and spirit. The higher courts of Pakistan have done a remarkable job to straighten the record and define the direction in the US-Pakistan emerging relationship that should be reciprocal rather than one-sided. Perhaps it is in this context that the timing of the verdict was questioned. The SC’s judgment to uphold the SHC decision to release Omar from jail after abolishing his death sentence coincided with the new administration’s arrival in the White House.

The verdict though loathed in the West, and the liberal circles alike, has raised a few questions: how is Omar’s release a travesty of justice when Omar has already served 20 years in jail — a sentence according to the Pakistani courts, enough for a crime to lure Pearl to Karachi, leading to his kidnapping? When the US nominated Khalid Sheikh, as Pearl’s murderer, then why should Pakistan extradite Omar to the US for any further trial? Being the champion of human rights, why has the US demanded of Pakistan to twist its justice system to serve the former’s national interest. A similar demand is being made in the Shakeel Afridi case. Finally, why isn’t the US knocking at the United Nations door to have Omar’s name included in its terrorists’ list?

The accusation that Pakistan’s debilitated prosecution system had helped Omer first evade a death sentence and later to secure release cannot be read anything but as an act of intellectual dishonesty. Yes, Pakistan’s criminal justice system is weak and unable to dispense justice to the right people in a timely fashion. In this particular case however, 20 years have been invested in exhausting available options and evidence to determine if Omar had been directly involved in Pearl’s murder or not. Isn’t the argument or the desire or the demand to accuse a person of a crime that he had not committed, itself a demand for the travesty of justice?

This piece is not to deny that Omar never had a militant background. He did travel to Bosnia during the Yugoslavian war that saw the merciless killing of 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men of all ages and professions. He did leave the London School of Economics to join Al Qaeda affiliated Harkatul Mujahidin camp in Afghanistan to respond to Islam’s persecution at the hand of the West in the name of the clash of civilisations. Moreover, he did lure Pearl to the valley of death. Yes, Omar should have done none of these. Then the West that obliterated Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan to name a few should also have done none of these to defend their so-called democracy.

This piece suggests that not only Pakistan but also most of the world has moved from being the hostage of the US-defined justice parameters.

Back then in the middle of the ruins left over by the Soviet-Afghan war, the Iranian Revolution, the Wahabi-led Saudi orthodoxy, the Kargil war and an illegitimate military government in the centre, Pakistan hardly had a choice to weigh options. Succumbing to the US demand came naturally, hence Omar’s implication on the US lines. However, that was two decades back. The world has changed manifold since. China has taken over to become the superpower. Saudi Arabia has moved on to develop an inclusive and pluralistic society. Iran has taken to a pragmatic approach for a regional coexistence. The Kargil wound is drowned in the thunder of Kashmir’s annexation to India. With a third civilian government, Pakistan is about to complete 15 years of uninterrupted democracy. Afghanistan has learned the hard lesson to refuse to become the ruins of the superpowers.

In this scenario, Omar Sheikh’s release cannot determine the US-Pakistan relations. However, it does determine Pakistan’s ability to refuse to submit to the US demand to twist judgment to suit its national interest.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2021.

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Shahid Khalid | 9 months ago | Reply

Great article explaining the facts and negating the demands of USA who want Omar Shaikh handed to them. What about Dr. Afia Siddique who is languishing in US prison which USA has refused to release on an insignificant charge if at all true

Asif huds | 9 months ago | Reply

Excellent piece.fair and balanced Hope IK and his government do not succumb to pressure from Washington. That in itself would be a travesty of justice

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