The order to give the terrorist home-like treatment in prison, had come from the office of Brigadier Ijaz Ahmed Shah, who until recently was Imran Khan’s Interior Minister.

 

New Delhi: Terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is in a prison in Pakistan for killing American journalist Daniel Pearl, is getting home-like facilities in the Hyderabad Central Jail where he is incarcerated.

However, this has not come as a surprise to people who are aware of the developments, as in the past too, incidents like this, which have been officially documented, have shown that he was getting facilities that included mobile phones.

In April 2020, a Sindh court had acquitted Sheikh of the murder charge while commuting his death sentence to seven years in prison and stated that since Sheikh had already spent 18 years in jail, the prison term would be considered as completed.

More recently, a two-judge bench of the Sindh High Court, on 24 December, directed security agencies not to keep Sheikh and the other accused under “any sort of detention” and declared all notifications of the Sindh government related to their detention as “null and void”.

The recent moves to ensure that Sheikh became a free man, official sources said, was being calibrated by some of the most trusted men of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. Two sources aware of the matter told The Sunday Guardian that the order to ensure that Sheikh would continue to get home-like facilities in prison until he was freed, had come from the office of Brigadier Ijaz Ahmed Shah, who until recently was the Interior Minister in the Khan Cabinet.

The body of American journalist Daniel Pearl, as per his post-mortem report, was found buried in a damp-soil area, cut into 10 pieces, at the depth of 5 feet, spread across an area that was 4 feet in length and 2 feet in width.

Pearl was kidnapped by terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh on 23 January 2002 from Karachi. He beheaded and dismembered Pearl on 1 February, just nine days after kidnapping him. His body was found on 16 May, at a distance of less than an hour’s drive from Karachi.

In his 29-page deposition in front of a special anti-terrorist court, Hyderabad (a copy is available with this newspaper) that took place on 21 June 2002, Sheikh denied his role in the abduction despite stating in the court, initially, that though he had been “arrested” on 13 February by Karachi police, he had been in ISI custody, or more specifically, at the house of Brigadier Ijaz Ahmed Shah, who was then the Home Secretary of Punjab region, since 5 February.

The Pakistani agencies were forced to establish Sheikh’s link to the murder after an FBI cyber expert, Ronald Joseph, was able to prove that the emails sent claiming responsibility for Pearl’s kidnapping, were sent by Sheikh. It was one of those rare times when an FBI employee was allowed to give testimony, which included a 50-page report, in front of a foreign court.

Pearl would not have met his horrible fate had the ISI not demanded his release through the hijackers of Indian Airlines IC-814, in the last week of 1999, exactly 21 years ago. When the three terrorists, Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Mushtaq Zargar and Sheikh, were released at the Kandahar airport to secure the lives of the passengers of IC-814, it was only Sheikh who was hugged and kissed by two ISI officers who were present at the airport. An incident that was acknowledged by the present National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, who as a senior Intelligence Bureau (IB) man, was a part of the team that had gone to Kandhar to secure the release of the Indian hostages.

Saeed has been in Indian prison since 1994 for kidnapping four foreign terrorists. The two ISI officers were not aware that the Indian assets had recognised them as belonging to the ISI.

This incident was narrated also by former Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief C.D. Sahay to The Sunday Guardian, who, too, was a part of the team that had gone to Kandahar.

Sahay said that the hijackers gave the Indian officers a list of 36 terrorists with the condition that either India released any seven of them as per its own wish or released three from the list of 36 as per the kidnappers’ wish, knowing very well that India would go for the second option. One of the three names on the kidnappers’ list was of Omar Saeed Sheikh.

Sahay, recalling the events that unfolded in the last few moments when the prisoners were released by Indian officials at the Kandahar airport, stated that only Masood Azhar was greeted with a loud applause by the Taliban, while the other two, Sheikh and Zargar received no such warm welcome, which made it clear that Sheikh was not the choice of the terrorists, but of the ISI, whose officers were present at the airport to receive him and took him away as soon he came down.

Brigadier Shah, who entered politics after retiring and won the election on a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) ticket, was the Minister for Interior in Imran Khan’s Cabinet until recently. He was also the chief of ISI, Punjab region in 1999 when the IC-814 was hijacked that resulted in the release of Sheikh.

He later went on to head the Intelligence Bureau (IB) from 2004 to 2008, a position for which he was picked by dictator Pervez Musharraf. Of the 38 years of his professional life, a majority was spent in ISI. He was recently appointed the minister for narcotics control in the Imran Khan Cabinet.

“He is a man who knows a lot of secrets, his closeness to Sheikh is known to everyone. You can ask any former ISI man and he will tell you about how Shah played a key role in the release of Sheikh from Indian prison,” a source told The Sunday Guardian.

After the decision of the high court in Pakistan, the US is likely to put in efforts to take the custody of Sheikh and try him in a US court. However, this is going to be a herculean task as Sheikh, once he goes into US custody, will be forced to reveal many secrets about his guardians in the ISI and in the Khan Cabinet.