ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani court Thursday overturned the murder conviction and death sentence of Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born militant who had been convicted of masterminding the 2002 abduction and killing of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, lawyers said.
The court also overturned the convictions of three other men who had been serving life sentences in the case. All four men were expected to be freed soon, lawyers said.
Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was abducted in January 2002 in the city of Karachi, while working on an article about Pakistani militant groups with links to al-Qaida. He was later beheaded.
Pearl began his career as a reporter with The Berkshire Eagle and North Adams Transcript from 1986 through 1990.
A two-member bench of the Sindh High Court in Karachi, headed by Justice Mohammad Karim Khan Agha, found that there had been sufficient evidence to convict Saeed of kidnapping, but not of murder, said Saeed's lawyer, Khawaja Naveed Ahmed.
"The court ruled that the charge of abduction was proven," he said.
The court reduced Saeed's sentence to seven years. Because he has been imprisoned for 18 years, he was expected to go free along with Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adil, the three other men whose convictions were overturned, Ahmed said.
Lawyers said the court had not yet issued a detailed ruling, only a brief order.
Still, Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the organization was "deeply disappointed."
"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," Butler said in a statement.
Soon after Pearl's killing, Pakistan's government, then led by President Pervez Musharraf, moved quickly to arrest Saeed and the other men amid a global outcry and pressure from the United States.
But a 2011 report, based on investigative work by students and faculty at the journalism program of Georgetown University and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, cast doubt on the four men's convictions. It found that Saeed and the three other men had been involved in the plot to abduct Pearl but were not responsible for his murder.
U.S. officials have said they believed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had personally carried out Pearl's murder.
Saeed, a British national who was trained in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, belonged to the militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad at the time of his 2002 arrest. Pakistani investigators said Saeed lured Pearl by offering him an interview with an Islamic cleric who had ties to Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, who was accused of trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight in December 2001 with explosives in his sneakers.
Saeed has made headlines from his cell over the years. In 2008, soon after Pakistani militants carried out terror attacks in Mumbai, India, Saeed managed to place a call to then-President Asif Ali Zardari, pretending to be the Indian foreign minister and warning of an attack by India. In 2016, the Pakistani military announced that it had foiled a plan to free Saeed from prison.