April 2 (UPI) -- A Pakistan regional court has commuted the death sentence of the man convicted in the 2002 kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and cleared three others in the case.
British-native Omar Saeed Sheikh was found guilty of planning Pearl's death and has spent 18 years in prison. It's still believed he was involved in Pearl's 2002 kidnapping but his attorneys in their appeals raised doubts about his responsibility for the reporter's death.
The court on Wednesday commuted Sheikh's death sentence to seven years for the kidnapping charge, which means he can be freed within days.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said it was "appalled" by the court's decision to overturn Sheikh's murder conviction.
"After nearly two decades, there is still insufficient accountability for the horrific murder of Daniel Pearl, who was executed, in part, for being Jewish," said USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie More in a statement. "This terrible situation reminds us that freedom of religion and freedom of press are intertwined -- they are two sides of the same coin."
The Sindh High Court also acquitted three others who were charged in Pearl's death, and who'd spent nearly 20 years in prison. It wasn't immediately known when they would be released.
Pearl was working as the Journal's South Asia bureau chief and was investigating "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in Karachi when he was abducted by militants in January 2002. The militants said Pearl was a spy and submitted a list of demands to the U.S. government. U.S. and Pakistani intelligence were unable to find Pearl before he was killed.
Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement he was "deeply disappointed" to see justice denied on Thursday, urging prosecutors to appeal the decision.
"We urge prosecutors to appeal the decision, which found Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh guilty only of kidnapping Pearl in a crime that led directly to his murder," he said.
Pearl's death, the first of numerous kidnappings and beheadings in the years that followed, sparked outrage when video footage of the killing was posted online in mid-2002.
U.S. authorities say al-Qaida deputy and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had also confessed to killing Pearl. Mohammed is being held at the U.S. military's detention base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he is scheduled to stand trial for his role in the 2001 attacks next January.