Pakistan's Sindh province government has decided not to release British-born al-Qaeda leader Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and his three aides, accused of kidnapping and murdering US journalist Daniel Pearl, in view of a Supreme Court order, according to a media report.
In a surprise move, a two-judge bench of the Sindh High Court on Thursday directed security agencies not to keep Sheikh and other accused under "any sort of detention" and declared all notifications of the Sindh government related to their detention "null and void". The court observed that the four men's detention was "illegal".
The court, however, had clarified that the accused should not be released if there is a Supreme Court restraining order regarding their detention.
Citing its sources, the Express Tribune newspaper said that the provincial government will not release these men in view of the Supreme Court's September 28 order.
The Pakistan People's Party-led Sindh government believes that the apex court's September 28 order in the case is still in the field, the sources told the daily.
A three-judge apex court bench headed by Justice Mushir Alam, which is hearing the appeal by the Sindh government and the family of the slain journalist against the acquittal of Sheikh by the Sindh High Court in April, on September 28 noted that till the next date of hearing, the accused shall not be released.
A senior government official said the apex court order has not been specifically recalled.
"The SHC in its December 24 order also clarified that accused should not be released if there is a Supreme Court restraining order regarding their detention," he added.
The sources said the Sindh government will also challenge the SHC's December 24 order in the apex court on Monday.
In April, a two-judge Sindh High Court bench commuted the death sentence of 46-year-old Sheikh to seven years imprisonment. The court also acquitted his three aides who were serving life terms in the case – almost two decades after they were found guilty and jailed.
However, the Sindh government refused to release them and kept them in detention under the Maintenance of Public Order.
Their continuous detention was challenged in the Sindh High Court, which ordered their release on Thursday.
On Friday, the United States expressed "deep concern" over the order to release Sheikh and his aides and said it will continue to monitor any developments in the case.
"We are deeply concerned by the reports of the December 24 ruling of Sindh High Court to release multiple terrorists responsible for the murder of Daniel Pearl. We have been assured that the accused have not been released at this time," the US State Department said in a tweet.
It said that the US will continue to monitor any developments in the case and will continue to support the Pearl family "through this extremely difficult process" while honouring the legacy of Pearl as a "courageous journalist".
The US has been mounting pressure on Pakistan, demanding justice for Pearl.
Ruth and Judea Pearl - the parents of Pearl - condemned the decision made by the Sindh High court and expressed full confidence in the Supreme Court of Pakistan to provide justice for their son and reinforce the paramount of the freedom of the press, the Express Tribune reported.
"We refuse to believe that the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people will let such a travesty of justice tarnish the image and legacy of Pakistan," they said in a statement.
Pearl, the 38-year-old South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was abducted and beheaded while he was in Pakistan investigating a story in 2002 on the links between the country's powerful spy agency ISI and al-Qaeda.
Pearl's murder took place three years after Sheikh, along with Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, was released by India in 1999 and given safe passage to Afghanistan in exchange for the nearly 150 passengers of hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814.
He was serving a prison term in India for kidnappings of Western tourists in the country.