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EDITORIAL: The Supreme Court has issued its detailed judgement on the January 2002 brutal murder case of Daniel Pearl, South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. It may be recalled that in its short order earlier this year, the court had acquitted by a majority two-to-one verdict the principal accused, Umar Sheikh, and three other suspects. The bench was seized of the appeals filed by the distraught parents of the slain journalist and the Sindh government, challenging the April 2020 Sindh High Court’s decision to overturn an anti-terrorism court’s (ATC) conviction of Umar on charges of kidnapping and murder, commuting his death sentence to seven-year rigorous imprisonment along with a Rs 2 million fine. By then he had already served nearly 20 years in solitary confinement.

Recording the reasons for acquittal, author of the judgement Justice Tariq Masood pointed out serious weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, noting that the evidence furnished during the trial was full of factual and legal defects. Regarding each and every piece of evidence, he remarked, doubts were emerging from the mouths of the witnesses. That brought into play a settled legal principle under which the benefit of the doubt goes to an accused. Even if a single circumstance created reasonable doubt in a prudent mind regarding guilt of an accused, observed the honourable justice, an accused is entitled to such benefit, not as a matter of grace and concession but of right, and that such benefits must be extended to the accused persons by courts without reservations. Few can quarrel with this long-honoured principle of justice. However, in his dissenting note, Justice Yahya Afridi approached the case from a different angle, that of a conspiracy, for which, he observed, direct evidence was seldom available. A conspiracy could be established by circumstantial evidence, he wrote, strict proof is not necessary. What is required by Article 23 of the Qanoon-i-Shahadat is that there should be “reasonable grounds” to believe that an accused and the person whose acts, statements or writings are sought to be given in evidence have conspired to commit an offence or an actionable wrong. In his opinion, in the present case, the motive of the accused to carry out the crime was not related to any private dispute with the victims, it clearly was the use of a threat designed to intimidate not only the Government of Pakistan, but also foreign governments and organisations to create a sense of fear and insecurity. Many familiar with the prevailing atmosphere at the time would be nodding in agreement.

The verdict is expected to be discussed and debated widely on its own merits as also its implications for relations with the US, which has been demanding restoration of death sentence initially awarded by an ATC. The US must respect the verdict of this country’s apex court. It should also serve as an instructive lesson for prosecutors who present shoddy evidence before courts and expect the same to be accepted, too.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021