Kidnapped journalist is dead, says suspect

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The Independent Online

Misery and mystery surrounded the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl yesterday, after the chief suspect confessed to the crime in court and then claimed the American journalist was dead.

Omar Sheikh, the British public schoolboy who became a kidnapping specialist for Islamic Jihad, had raised hopes Mr Pearl was still alive only the day before. Yesterday he brutally extinguished them.

At his first appearance in court in Karachi, surrounded by heavily armed guards and speaking so softly that he was barely audible, Sheikh said: "As far as I understand, he's dead." He gave no other details.

He told the court he had carried out the kidnapping "of my own free will". "I don't want to defend this case," he went on. "I did this ... right or wrong, I had my reasons. I think that our country shouldn't be catering to American needs."

In the absence of any further information from Sheikh, both the Pakistani authorities and Mr Pearl's wife and employees chose not to believe him.

Pakistan's Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haider, said: "Until the body is found, we cannot believe what Omar is saying. We need proof or evidence. This gentleman has been making several statements and changing these statements. We cannot give any credence to them."

Steven Goldstein, of Dow Jones & Co, which owns The Wall Street Journal, Mr Pearl's newspaper, said: "We remain confident that Danny is alive."

Mr Pearl's wife, Mariane, who is more than six months' pregnant with their first child, made another appeal to whoever is holding her husband.

"I want to appeal again to you to please release him or at least let me know how he is doing," she said in a statement released by The Wall Street Journal yesterday. She urged his captors to think about the stress on her and the couple's unborn child.

"Since his father's disappearance, he is now breathing into his being the worry and apprehension I have about my husband's well-being," she said.

Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal's South Asia correspondent, vanished on 23 January in Karachi while researching a story about Islamic militants in Pakistan. Four days later, a previously unknown organisation calling itself the Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty contacted media organisations by e-mail, showinga picture of Mr Pearl in manacles with a gun held to his head.

"If the Americans want the return of Mr Pearl," ran the accompanying message, "all Pakistanis being illegally detained by the FBI inside America ... must be given access to lawyers and allowed to see family members." All Pakistani prisoners "must be returned to Pakistan where they will be tried in a Pakistani court".

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, made it clear America had no intention of meeting the demands. A second e-mail sent on 30 January warned that Mr Pearl would be killed within 24 hours if the demands were not met.

No further communications have been received.

One day before the second e-mail, The Independent became the first newspaper to link Omar Sheikh to the case, on account of the sophistication of his messages and similarities between this kidnapping and others that Sheikh had carried out in India in 1994.

Pakistani police came to the same conclusion nine days later and on 12 February they claimed they had arrested him in the city of Lahore.

Yet in his brief testimony yesterday, Sheikh flatly denied the police account. "I was not arrested," he told the judge. "I gave myself up on 5 February ... after it became known that I was involved, to save my family from harassment."

Suspicion is rife that Pakistan is playing a shady and complicated game over the kidnapping. Although the Pakistani President, General Pervez Musharraf, currently on a state visit to the US, has sworn to control Islamic extremism, it remains deeply rooted in Pakistan. The militant group with which Sheikh is most closely identified, Jaish-e-Mohammed, is reputed to have close links with ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence agency.

On 8 October last year, General Musharraf sacked the head of the ISI, Lt-Gen Mahmood Ahmed Shah, who had strong Islamist sympathies, reportedly at the instigation of the Americans. But deep identification with Islamic extremism has become endemic in the culture of the ISI, which remains enormously powerful.

On 11 February, Pakistani police detained Khalid Khawaja, a former ISI agent, in connection with the kidnapping – a rare assault on the agency's privileges.

Five days before, Mr Khawaja and others wrote a piece in The Los Angeles Times confessing a degree of involvement in the kidnapping.

"Pearl came to know radical Islam's inner sanctum in Pakistan through us," he wrote.

But Mr Khawaja appealed to the kidnappers to release him. "Releasing an innocent man ... would show the kidnappers' righteousness," he wrote. "It's time they let Pearl go back to his family."