Government obtains indictment against kidnap suspect in reporter Pearl’s case

By Ted Bridis, The Associated Press
Friday March 15, 2002

WASHINGTON — Muslim extremist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was indicted Thursday in the kidnapping and murder of reporter Daniel Pearl, the government pushing for quick U.S. criminal charges out of concern that Pakistani authorities might release the suspect. 

A federal grand jury in Trenton, N.J., indicted Saeed on charges of conspiring to take Pearl as a hostage and then kidnapping him. Since the Jan. 23 kidnapping resulted in the Wall Street Journal reporter’s death, Saeed could face the death penalty if brought to the United States and convicted. 

The charges were filed in New Jersey because Saeed is accused of sending e-mails, using the alias “Chaudrey Bashir,” to Pearl that were relayed electronically through the Journal’s computer network in South Brunswick, N.J., officials said. The kidnapping took place in Pakistan, where Saeed is in custody. 

Authorities said Pearl probably already was dead when his kidnappers threatened in an e-mail on Jan. 30 to kill him within 24 hours unless their demands were met. The exact date of Pearl’s slaying remains a mystery. A videotape showing him decapitated was delivered to U.S. officials in Pakistan and is being studied for clues by the FBI. 

Announcing the indictment, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Saeed “methodically set a death trap for Daniel Pearl, lured him into it with lies and savagely ended his life.” 

The indictment alleges that Saeed trained at Afghan military camps and also fought with Taliban and al-Qaida fighters last September and October as the war in Afghanistan was beginning. Prosecutors believe the kidnapping plot was hatched in January “to take hostage a journalist from a U.S newspaper in order to affect U.S. government policies,” according to the indictment. 

President Bush met with Pearl’s widow, Mariane, in the Oval Office on Thursday. White House aides did not release any details of the meeting. Ashcroft also met privately Thursday in his office with Mrs. Pearl, who is about to give birth to the couple’s son. The attorney general told her afterward, “The United States has not forsaken your husband.” 

“Where freedom is feared, men and women like Daniel Pearl will always be hunted, but where freedom is cherished they will be forever defended,” Ashcroft said. 

A spokesman for Dow Jones & Co., the parent company for the Journal, said: “This is a matter for the justice authorities in the United States and Pakistan.” 

The Justice Department also disclosed Thursday separate criminal charges against Saeed in Washington, where a grand jury indicted him in November 2001 on counts of conspiracy to take a hostage, taking a hostage and aiding and abetting. Those charges involved the October 1994 kidnapping of another American, Bela J. Nuss, during a tourist visit to India. Nuss was released after 11 days. 

The charges against Saeed in that case carry a maximum of life in prison. 

The decision to press forward with a U.S. criminal indictment in the Pearl case caps weeks of deliberations within the White House, Justice Department and State Department about how to proceed, even as Saeed faced criminal proceedings in Pakistan. 

U.S. officials have been in discussions with Pakistani officials about bringing Saeed and possibly others to the United States. The two nations have no formal extradition agreement, but Pakistan previously has sent suspects to the United States under a less-formal procedure known as “rendering.” 

Ashcroft acknowledged Thursday that his decision to obtain a U.S. indictment in the Pearl case was driven by concern that Saeed might be released in Pakistan. Authorities in neighboring India released Saeed in December 1999 after his arrest in the Nuss kidnapping in exchange for passengers and crew of an Indian Airlines jet hijacked to Afghanistan. 

“We think it’s important to have charges in place if, for some reason, he would be in any way released,” Ashcroft said. “We are collaborating with the Pakistanis and informing them of our interest. They have him in custody, and we don’t.” 

Asked whether Ashcroft was concerned about possible legal challenges claiming Saeed would face “double jeopardy” by being prosecuted for the same crime in Pakistan and the United States, the attorney general answered “yes” but did not elaborate.