Men Plead Innocent to Pearl Murder
KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) _ A British-born Islamic militant and three co-defendants pleaded innocent Monday to the kidnap-slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, a court official said.
Journalists and members of the public were not allowed to attend the proceedings, but a senior court official speaking on condition of anonymity said all four men answered ``no″ when asked if they pleaded guilty.
It had been uncertain if top suspect Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh would enter a plea, because he had said he did not recognize Pakistan’s ``British″ secular court system, demanding instead to be tried by an Islamic court.
The trial began under tight security Monday morning inside a makeshift courtroom in the Karachi Central Jail, where Saeed and the three others are held on charges of murder, kidnapping and terrorism. They face the death penalty if convicted.
Police snipers manned positions in guard towers and atop buildings as the judge and prosecutors arrived shortly before the proceedings began.
Some 70 additional officers have been added to guard the jail during the trial because officials fear cohorts of the suspects ``might try to free them or even kill them,″ said Amanullah Niazi, deputy superintendent of police at the Karachi jail.
Policemen with assault rifles guard chief prosecutor Raja Quereshi’s house day and night, and armed guards accompany prosecutors and the judge when they leave their residences. Tight security is not something new in this port city with a history of targeted killings of government officials, but no chances are being taken in this closely watched case.
The entering of pleas and opening statements in the proceedings have been twice delayed since April 5 _ once to enable the defense to receive evidence and later to allow time to complete legal steps for trying seven fugitive defendants in absentia.
On Friday, Judge Arshad Noor Khan was removed as the trial justice because he was present during a Feb. 14 hearing where Saeed admitted his role in the kidnapping. Saeed later recanted, but his lawyers argued that allowing Khan to preside would be prejudicial to the defense. Abdul Ghafoor Memon was appointed as a replacement.
Pearl, the Journal’s South Asia correspondent, disappeared Jan. 23 while supposedly researching links between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, the man arrested in December on a Paris-Miami flight with explosives in his shoes.
Pearl was last seen on his way to a Karachi restaurant to meet an Islamic militant 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.
U.S. investigators traced the e-mails to one of the defendants, Fahad Naseem, who in turn identified Saeed as the mastermind, police said. Salman Saqib and former policeman Sheikh Mohammed Adeel, are also standing trial.
Saeed joined Islamic extremist movements after traveling to the Balkans about 10 years ago, and is believed to have received some training at a camp in Afghanistan. He was arrested in India in 1994 for kidnapping Westerners.
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.