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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Pearl murder trial security fears
Pakistani paramilitary soldier on guard at the jail where the trial is taking place
The threat of attacks on the court is considered high
test hello test
By Susannah Price
BBC correspondent in Karachi
Monday saw the first day when evidence was given in the trial of those accused of the kidnap and murder of Daniel Pearl

The four men accused of murdering the American journalist Daniel Pearl were formally charged by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan's largest city Karachi.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh being escorted to the court
Omar Sheikh has pleaded not guilty

All four, who included the main suspect, Omar Sheikh, pleaded not guilty to the charges of murdering and kidnapping Mr Pearl, aiding and abetting the crimes and terrorism.

The anti-terrorism court is being held in Karachi's Central Jail because the authorities are worried about any possible attacks by Islamic militants who support the defendants.

The lawyers and the judge arrived at the jail escorted by armed policeman, and there were also police gunmen on the roofs of nearby buildings.

The courtroom is closed to the public and to journalists, although reporters were allowed to wait in the dusty grounds of the prison while the proceedings were underway.

It was widely assumed that the trial would not begin on Monday as the original Judge, Arshad Noor, was replaced a few days ago by a new judge.

Hearings confirmed

The defence had successfully argued that Judge Arshad Noor could be called as a witness because he was present when Omar Sheikh made several statements in court during an earlier hearing and the High Court in Karachi agreed that a replacement should be found.

Paramilitary troops on alert at the Karachi jail
The authorities are taking no chances

However, once Monday's proceedings were underway for a few hours, court officials confirmed that the indictment had gone ahead.

At about 4.30 pm the defence lawyers finally emerged and confirmed that all four men had pleaded not guilty.

One of the defence lawyers, Khwaja Naveed, said that Omar Sheikh had told the court he did not recognise the law he was being tried under and wanted to be tried by an Islamic or Shariah Court.

During the hearing, the prosecution had called their first witness -- the taxi driver who took Mr Pearl to the Metropole Karachi hotel for a meeting shortly before he disappeared.

The taxi driver apparently identified Omar Sheikh as the person who Mr Pearl met at that point.

"He pointed out Omar Sheikh and said this man took him in the white car and they drove away and after that he didn't know anything about it," said Khwaja Naveed.

The defence say that the evidence against Omar Sheikh and the three other accused is circumstantial and does not prove the case. They also point out that neither Daniel Pearl's body nor any murder weapon has been found.

Quick trial

Mr Pearl disappeared in January while researching a story on Islamic militants. Photographs of him in captivity, with a gun pointed to his head, were sent to various news organisations along with demands for improved treatment of al-Qaeda suspects.

Ahmed Saeed Sheikh at his son's trial
Omar Sheikh's father is the only outsider allowed

A month later a video tape, showing Mr Pearl's throat being cut, was sent to the American consulate in Karachi. By the time it was received all four men were already in custody.

A further seven men who are also accused have not been captured and their case will only proceed once they are caught.

The prosecution lawyer Raja Qureshi said the anti-terrorism act under which they were being tried was the law of Pakistan which was an Islamic country.

Both prosecution and defence lawyers say that despite the large number of witnesses due to be called they hope that the trial could be completed as quickly as possible.

See also:

23 Apr 02 | South Asia
Police witness called in Pearl case
19 Apr 02 | South Asia
Pearl trial judge removed
09 Mar 02 | South Asia
Pearl case suspect hears testimony
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