Taxi driver tells Pakistani court that he saw suspect drive away with Daniel Pearl

Monday, April 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) _ A British-born Islamic militant drove off with Daniel Pearl in a white car the day the Wall Street Journal reporter disappeared, a taxi driver testified Monday as the militant's trial on kidnapping and murder charges began.

The testimony in the Karachi court came after Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and three co-defendants pleaded innocent to charges of murder, kidnapping and terrorism in the Pearl case.

After entering his plea, Saeed repeated his objection to being tried under Pakistan's ``British'' secular court system and demanded to be tried by an Islamic court, according Khawaja Naveed Ahmed, who represents two of Saeed's co-defendants. The trial remains closed to journalists and the public.

``He pleaded not guilty and said, 'I don't recognize this law and I only accept Shariat (Islamic) Law,'' Naveed said. Chief prosecutor Raja Quereshi said the judge quickly rejected the demand, saying, ``You are being tried under the law of the land.''

The trial was adjourned after about six hours until Tuesday.

Pearl, the Journal's South Asia correspondent, disappeared Jan. 23 while supposedly researching links between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, the man arrested in December on a Paris-Miami flight with explosives in his shoes.

Taxi driver Nasir Abbas, the only witness called Monday, testified that he picked Pearl up from a house in Karachi that day and drove him to a location outside a hotel. A white car then drove up and Abbas said that Saeed ``called Pearl and Pearl got into the car, which whisked him away,'' Naveed said.

The trial began under tight security at about 10:45 a.m. in the jail where Saeed and the three others are being held. Police snipers manned positions in guard towers and atop buildings as the judge and prosecutors arrived shortly before the proceedings began.

Some 70 additional officers have been added to guard the jail throughout the trial because of fears that supporters of the suspects ``might try to free them or even kill them,'' said Amanullah Niazi, deputy superintendent of police at the Karachi jail.

Police with assault rifles guard the chief prosecutor's house day and night, and armed guards accompany prosecutors and the judge when they leave their residences.

On Friday, Judge Arshad Noor Khan was removed as the trial justice because he was present during a Feb. 14 hearing where Saeed admitted his role in the kidnapping. Saeed later recanted, but his lawyers argued that allowing Khan to preside would be prejudicial to the defense. Abdul Ghafoor Memon was appointed as a replacement.

Pearl was last known to be on his way to a Karachi restaurant to meet an Islamic militant believed to have been Saeed. A few days later, e-mails sent by the previously unknown National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty announced his kidnapping and showed pictures of him in captivity.

A videotape received by U.S. diplomats in Pakistan on Feb. 21 confirmed Pearl, 38, was dead. His body has not been found.

U.S. investigators traced the e-mails to one of the defendants, Fahad Naseem, who in turn identified Saeed as the mastermind, police said. Salman Saqib and former policeman, Sheikh Mohammed Adeel, are also standing trial.

Saeed joined Islamic extremist movements after traveling to the Balkans about 10 years ago. After training in Afghanistan, he went to India, where he was arrested in 1994 for kidnapping Westerners.

He was freed in December 1999 along with two other Islamic militants in exchange for the passengers and crew of an Indian Airlines jet that was hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.