(FROM DAWN OF KARACHI DATED 23-9-08)
Suspects in Pearl case yet to be tried over fears of damaging testimonies
KARACHI, Sept 22: Two high-profile militants of the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Attaur Rehman and Faisal Bhatti, who were picked up under suspicion of involvement in the kidnapping and murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl, have remained in the custody of police and intelligence agencies for over six years without being charged, reportedly because their testimony may lead to a retrial of Shaikh Omar and his associates, who were found guilty of the kidnapping and murder in 2002.
Sources in the intelligence agencies said that in addition to having been involved in several sectarian killings, Rehman (alias Naeem Bukhari) and Bhatti (alias Zubair Chishti) were believed to have arranged a location on the outskirts of Karachi, where they kept Pearl after he was kidnapped in January 2002, and subsequently handed the victim over to some Arabs who eventually killed him.
The two militants were picked up from the Nazimabad area in June 2002 but none of the law-enforcement agencies acknowledged their arrest until 2007. On June 29, 2002, the Sindh home department published an advertisement declaring Rehman and Bhatti to be most-wanted terrorists and announcing a collective reward for Rs6 million for their arrest.
The pair’s relatives went to the Sindh High Court to challenge their illegal detention but the government insisted that neither of the men were under its custody. At the time these petitions were being heard, lawyer Aamir Mansoob Qureshi had quoted reports from the media that referred to the arrest of the men and the recovery of a large quantity of arms and ammunition from them. He had requested the court to bring the alleged recovery on the record so that if the police claimed the arrest of the suspected detainees in the future, the weapons’ cache could not be attributed to them.
Nevertheless, it was eventually on June 2, 2007, that the Kashmor police claimed to have arrested Rehman and Bhatti for possessing illegal weapons and explosive materials. The announcement of their arrest was made in order to escape action by the Supreme Court, which was hearing cases of ‘missing persons’ amongst whom the two militants were counted. At the time, Kashmor police chief Noor Ahmed Paichuho and other officials claimed that Rehman and Bhatti were being interrogated with reference to the Pearl murder case.
Neither of the men have, however, been produced so far in any court of law in connection with the Pearl case. The outcome of their interrogations was never made public and they are currently being held in Sukkur Prison.
‘Missing persons’ issue forced disclosure
Senior security officials told Dawn that the trial regarding Pearl’s kidnapping and murder was at its final stages when Rehman and Bhatti were arrested. Had the arrests been shown, they claimed, it would have ruined the prosecution’s argument that Ahmed Omar Saeed Shaikh, aka Shaikh Omar, and his accomplices were involved in the kidnapping and killing of the Wall Street reporter.
“We held day-long discussions with intelligence and government officials and prosecutors in order to decide whether or not to acknowledge the arrest of Attaur Rehman and Faisal Bhatti,” said a senior official on the condition of anonymity. “The common view was that the acknowledgement would ruin the prosecution’s argument and would lead to the acquittal of Shaikh Omar and his associates, so we decided not to announce their arrest.”
A month after Rehman and Bhatti were arrested, on July 15, 2002, an Anti-Terrorism Court in Hyderabad handed down a death sentence to Shaikh Omar, and life terms to his three associates, for the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl.
The official said that as a result of an unusual delay in the hearing of the appeals filed by the men convicted in the Pearl case, the police were forced to refrain from acknowledging the arrest of Rehman and Bhatti. “They were held secretly at different locations but it was the missing person’s case that forced the government to finally acknowledge their arrest in 2007,” he explained.
Once the arrests were acknowledged, a fresh petition was moved in the Sindh High Court through which the petitioner asked the court to record the statements of both Attaur Rehman and Faisal Bhatti, in order to ascertain where they had been kept in illegal custody between 2002 and June, 2007.
At a recent hearing, the additional advocate-general of Sindh presented a statement on behalf of the Sindh home department, which said that Rehman and Bhatti were wanted in eight criminal cases. However, the list of cases did not include the Pearl murder case.
A question of credibility
The petitioners’ counsel Aamir Mansoob told Dawn that his clients should be given the chance to appear before the court and record statements, so that it could be ascertained where they have been for the five years before their arrest was acknowledged by law enforcement agencies. “This is my sole plea to the court,” he said.
However, a source maintained that since the government was in no mood to reopen the Pearl murder case, it was unlikely to allow Rehman and Bhatti to record statements and apprise the court of their story, since that would go in favour of Shaikh Omar and his associates.
“We would face a nightmarish situation if either of the two militants confessed before a court of law to involvement in the Pearl murder case,” said a senior security officer. “I advised the government not to charge them in the Pearl case since otherwise, this would lead to a retrial of Shaikh Omar and his associates, and the acquittal of all the men already convicted. And if that had happened, our credibility would have been questioned by the whole world.”
According to this officer, this was also the reason why the government did not initiate prosecution proceedings against one of the absconders in the Pearl murder case, Hashim Qadeer (alias Arif), who was formally arrested in August 2005 under suspicion of involvement in the Pearl case. Since then, however, he has remained incarcerated in a Karachi jail without having faced trial.