Islamabad (CNN)- A Pakistani court on Thursday ordered the immediate release of four men accused of kidnapping and murdering American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, saying their detention was “illegal.”
The four men, who were found guilty in 2002, had their convictions overturned in April by the same High Court in the southeastern Sindh province. Among those accused of Pearl’s murder is British national Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who had his death sentence reduced to seven year’s detention. The men had been kept in jail under temporary detention orders since then.
A written order from the Sindh High Court calling for the release said that Sheikh and three other men had “suffered irreparable harm and extreme prejudice” after spending 18 years behind bars prior to their acquittal and then “almost a further nine months” based on detention orders issued by the Sindh government.
The court order was not fully signed off by end of business on Thursday and the men remained in custody.
Pearl, who was working as the South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, was in Karachi reporting on Pakistani extremists and British “shoe bomber” Richard Reid when he was kidnapped and then beheaded by militants.
The high profile abduction drew international attention, amid growing concern over the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism. Assailants later filmed his beheading and sent it to US officials. It was among the first propaganda videos targeting hostages created by extremists, and helped to inspire other terror groups to film horrific and egregious acts of violence.
Alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2003, at one point claimed to have personally killed Pearl, but the admission was made while he was being tortured and he was never charged with the crime. Federal agents backed up Mohammed’s confession by comparing photos of the veins in his hands and the vein patterns of an assailant in the video of Pearl’s killing, according to a report by Georgetown University students and faculty and the Center for Public Integrity.
Pakistani authorities and the Pearl family have separately appealed against the April overturning of Sheikh’s conviction to the Supreme Court, according to Pearl family attorney Faisal Siddiqui. The next hearing in that separate case is due in early January.