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A U.S.-Pakistan Reset Just Got a Lot Harder

Michael Kugelman for Foreign Policy

Created 02/16/2021

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On Jan. 28, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the acquittal of four men convicted of abducting and murdering the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The ruling upheld a lower court decision in Sindh province last year—appealed by Pakistani government officials—that overturned the murder convictions, found them guilty of kidnapping charges only, and ordered their release because they had already served enough time on the less serious charge.

The Biden administration reacted strongly. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the United States was “outraged.” She described it as “an affront to terror victims everywhere.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a lengthy written statement, said the United States was “deeply concerned.” Washington is particularly unhappy about the acquittal of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, widely believed to be the mastermind of Pearl’s abduction and a longtime, card-carrying member of the Islamist terrorist elite.

There’s never a good time for convicted terrorists to be acquitted, but the ruling has spoiled a rare bright spot in an often-troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship. U.S. President Joe Biden has been keen to cooperate with Pakistan to advance a floundering Afghan peace process, and Islamabad has called for a reset of the relationship that expands cooperation into non-security spaces. Both goals, but especially Islamabad’s, will now be harder to achieve.

Pakistani militants snatched Pearl in Karachi in January 2002. They held him captive for more than a week before decapitating him, slicing his body into 10 pieces, and burying his remains in a shallow grave. The sickening crime set terrible precedents. Journalists became a favorite abduction target for Islamist terrorists, and militants began producing execution videos like the one filmed by Pearl’s killers.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruling amplifies long-standing tension points in U.S. relations with Islamabad. One is Pakistan’s failure to keep terrorists who target the United States or its interests behind bars. The trial of Sheikh and his three co-conspirators, which ran from April to July 2002 and wasn’t open to the public, was a mess. According to the Pearl Project, a Georgetown University investigation published in 2011, the prosecution used false testimony to build a strong case for murder convictions, even though there was only sound evidence of the defendants’ roles in Pearl’s abduction. The Pearl Project’s research, based on reviews of legal documents and interviews with those involved in the case, concluded that Islamabad was embarrassed about Pearl’s execution and wanted to show it was tough on terrorism—at a time when it had just established a new, post-9/11 counterterrorism partnership with Washington.

 

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