A Pakistani court on Thursday overturned the death sentence of British-born top Al Qaeda leader Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was convicted in the abduction and murder of United States journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002.
Pearl, the 38-year-old South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was abducted and beheaded while he was in Pakistan investigating a story on the alleged links between the country's powerful spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence and Al Qaeda.
Sheikh was arrested from Lahore in February 2002 and sentenced to death five months later by an anti-terrorism court.
The incident came three years after Sheikh, along with Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, was released by India in 1999 and given safe passage to Afghanistan in exchange for the nearly 150 passengers of hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814.
On Thursday, the Sindh high court commuted the death sentence of Sheikh, 46, to seven years in prison. Sheikh has been in jail for the past 18 years.
A two-judge bench headed by Justice Mohammad Karim Khan Agha also acquitted the three others -- Fahad Naseem, Salman Saqib and Sheikh Adil -- serving life sentences in the case, the Dawn newspaper reported.
The bench announced the verdict on the appeals filed by the four convicts 18 years ago.
It also dismissed an appeal of the state seeking enhancement of life term of the three co-accused, the paper said.
According to the report, Sheikh's seven-year prison will be counted from the time served in jail.
While arguing the case, the lawyers for the appellants submitted that the prosecution had miserably failed to prove its case against their clients beyond any reasonable doubt and prosecution witnesses were mostly policemen, whose testimonies could not be relied upon.
They had further contended that Naseem and Adil's confessions before a judicial magistrate were defective and not voluntary.
They also argued that the recovery of the laptop from Naseem was shown to have been made on February 11, 2002, while computer expert Ronald Joseph had deposed that he was given the computer for verification on February 4 and he examined the laptop for six days.
Deputy Prosecutor General Saleem Akhtar had supported the trial court's verdict and submitted that the prosecution had proved its case against the appellants beyond a shadow of doubt and had requested the court to dismiss the appeals, the report said.
According to a report in The Express Tribune, in 2014, an anti-terrorism court had acquitted Qari Hashim, a co-accused in the case due to a lack of evidence.
The same year, Sheikh allegedly attempted suicide in his prison cell by hanging himself with a cloth from the ventilator.
In January 2011, a report released by the Pearl Project at Georgetown University following an investigation into his death revealed that the wrong men were convicted for Pearl's murder.
In February 2016, the Pakistan Army arrested more than 100 militants and foiled a jailbreak attempt by al-Qaeda terrorists to free Sheikh and other leaders of the terror group.
Thursday's verdict came more than a month after Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) warned Pakistan that stern action will be taken against it if the country fails to check the flow of money to terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) among others.
The FATF, which supervises effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing, last year placed Pakistan on its 'Grey List' of countries for failure to curb funnelling of funds to terror groups like LeT and JeM.
If not removed off the list by April end, Pakistan may move to a blacklist of countries that face severe economic sanctions, such as Iran.