U.S., Pakistan discuss militant

Nations in talks to hand over suspect in Pearl's killing

February 26, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - American and Pakistani officials have begun detailed talks on arrangements that could lead to Pakistan's turning over Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the chief suspect in the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, to the United States, officials from both countries said last night.

A decision could be made as early as today, when the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, is to meet with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, for the first time since Pearl was determined last week to have been killed, the officials said. But they said any deal might hinge on whether Pakistani investigators thought they had finished questioning Saeed.

An agreement could help heal a rift that was opened in November, when the United States formally requested that Pakistan locate Saeed, arrest him and make him available to U.S. investigators, who have been seeking for several years to charge him in connection with a kidnapping in India in 1994.

In Washington, Bush administration officials said yesterday that Saeed was secretly indicted in November by a federal grand jury in Washington that had investigated his role in the kidnapping of Bela Nuss, an American who was taken hostage in India in 1994 along with three young British tourists. The hostages said Saeed threatened to behead them. They were freed by Indian police.

The Americans said the indictment provided the legal grounds to have Saeed turned over to authorities, allowing him to be prosecuted both for the 1994 kidnapping and, if charges are brought, for Pearl's killing.

The White House made clear yesterday that President Bush wants Pakistan to turn over Saeed.

During a brief appearance before reporters, Bush stopped short of demanding Saeed, saying, "We're always interested in dealing with people who have harmed American citizens."

His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, added, "the United States would very much like to get our hands on Omar Sheikh," using a variant of Saeed's name, and said the White House was considering invoking an extradition treaty that it struck with Britain in 1931. The treaty was extended to India, under British colonial rule in 1931, and the State Department asserts that it covers Pakistan, which was partitioned from India more than a half-century ago.

The initial U.S. request, made in a letter to Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, was ignored, as was a follow-up request early last month, senior Pakistani officials acknowledged yesterday. As recently as Jan. 24, the day after Pearl's kidnapping, Chamberlin made the request to Musharraf in a meeting in which she was accompanied by visiting FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Saeed was freed to Afghanistan in 1999 after being released from an Indian jail in a hostage-prisoner swap. American authorities have long suspected that he returned to Pakistan, but until his arrest there this month on charges related to Pearl's disappearance, Pakistan had said his whereabouts where unknown.

Last night, a high-ranking Pakistani intelligence officer spoke of reservations about whether to surrender Saeed, who is in custody in a Karachi jail. But he said that the decision was in the hands of Musharraf, who has vowed an all-out war on terrorism within his country, and who has said that his resolve had been doubled by Pearl's killing.

"There is some reluctance because Pakistan's own legal system should be able to take care of the situation," the intelligence official said.

"But if the U.S. demand is conceded by the president, then everyone will fall in line."

Saeed, shrouded in a white sheet, was hustled into a court in Karachi yesterday, but prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to charge him with the crime.

The appearance in court was his first since the death of Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was revealed in a videotape sent to U.S. authorities. Saeed appeared before a judge behind closed doors.

The judge ordered that Saeed and two other suspects be detained another 14 days, after police said they needed more time to find the body of Pearl and the weapon that was used to cut the reporter's throat on camera.

Saeed was in police custody Thursday when American authorities announced that they had received the videotape containing evidence of Pearl's death. The images on the tape made clear that Pearl had been decapitated, perhaps after he died.

In a previous court appearance, Saeed said within earshot of reporters that he was responsible for Pearl's murder. But prosecutors have said that statement cannot be regarded as a confession because it was not made under oath, and yesterday, the suspect was apparently much more careful in his remarks.

Saeed is not being represented by a lawyer. But an attorney representing two other defendants in the case said Saeed and his clients had all complained to the judge that they had been pressured into confessions, including signing blank sheets of papers.

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