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Attorney General Announces Indictment of Daniel Pearl Suspect

Aired March 14, 2002 - 13:19   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: ... case at this time while the key suspect, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, is going through the process in Pakistan.

HEMMER: What is the process? Update us on that status, legally in Pakistan on him.

CANDIOTTI: Yes. You might recall that he has been in custody for quite some time, for more than a month at the very least, since last month or earlier. And initially, there was no public acknowledgement by the Pakistanis that he had been taken into custody. So, a lot of questions and mysteries surrounding that as well. Some say he has been an informant for Pakistani intelligence, and he has boasted that, in fact, very recently that he will be protected by them, ultimately. In fact, Mr. Saeed has made threats that if something does happen to him, if he is extradited to the United States, that there will be hell to pay for it, as a matter of fact.

Mr. Ashcroft stepping to the podium now to announce the indictment against Mr. Saeed in two separate cases.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good afternoon.

Today, I'm announcing a grand jury's indictment of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British citizen currently in custody of Pakistani authorities, for acts of terrorism against two United States citizens. Saeed is charged with the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl and the 1994 kidnapping of a United States citizen in India.

A grand jury in the District of New Jersey has returned an indictment charging Saeed with hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking resulting in the death of Daniel Pearl. In addition, we are today unsealing an indictment filed in November of last year charging Saeed with the 1994 armed kidnapping of Bela Jay Nuss, an American tourist in India.

If Saeed is found guilty of the crimes he is charged with committing against Daniel Pearl, he could receive the death penalty. Conviction in the Nuss case carries the maximum penalty of life in prison.

It has now been three weeks since the mystery of Daniel Pearl's disappearance was resolved tragically by the news of his brutal murder. In this time, in the face of this tragedy, Marianne Pearl, Daniel's widow, has refused to concede defeat to terrorists. She has instead rallied Americans and citizens of all nations to unite against the evil that took the life of the father of her unborn son. She has been an eloquent and forceful reminder to all of us that what is at stake in the fight against terrorism is nothing less than the values of free speech and open inquiry that Daniel cherished, the values that protect and undergird the freedom we enjoy.

This morning, I had the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Pearl and I thanked her and I commend her for her courage and the resolve that she has shown. With today's indictment, I'm honored to be able to offer to Marianne Pearl a measure of solace and this pledge: The United States has not forsaken your husband nor the values that he embodied and cherished. The story of Daniel Pearl that he died trying to tell will be told and justice will be done.

I want to thank Larry Thompson, my deputy attorney general, for his work in assembling in the Department of Justice an unprecedented prosecution team to bring the full weight of our resources to bear on prosecuting the indictments being announced today.

Deputy Attorney General Thompson worked hard with two United States attorneys, in whose separate jurisdictions these indictments were brought, and worked hard to bring these two individuals together to combine their knowledge and expertise for this prosecution.

Chris Christy (ph), our U.S. attorney in New Jersey, will work with our U.S. attorney for the District of Colombia, Roscoe Howard (ph), to prosecute Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh for the crimes with which he is charged in both the Pearl and Nuss cases. Mr. Christy (ph) and Mr. Howard (ph) are here today and I thank them both for the work that they've already done and for the talent and dedication that they will devote to the cause of justice as they move these cases forward.

In addition, I want to thank Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff and the Criminal Division of the Justice Department as well as Dale Watson the FBI executive's assistant for counterterrorism and counterintelligence.

The FBI worked very hard in this matter. They have devoted the kind of effort and energy that's necessary to make these kinds of cases. And I'm grateful to the FBI for their untiring fight in the war against terrorism.

The indictment in the Pearl case announced today states that Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh is affiliated with radical, militant organizations. The indictment charges further that Saeed trained in military camps in Afghanistan and, in or about September and October 2001, fought in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda forces.

The grand jury charges that in the opening weeks of 2002, Saeed lead a ring of coconspirators who carefully and methodically set a death trap for Daniel Pearl, lured him into it with lies, and savagely ended his life. The indictment states that Saeed and his coconspirators purposely set out to take hostage an acclaimed journalist from an influential United States newspaper in order to change U.S. policies in the war against terrorism, and to achieve other goals.

Using the Internet to communicate, Saeed assumed a false identity to lure Daniel Pearl to a meeting in Karachi with a fictitious source. It was from this meeting that Pearl was abducted.

In the captivity of his kidnappers, the indictment charges that Daniel Pearl was kept in seclusion under the use and threat of violence. His kidnappers communicated their demands to various media outlets by e-mail, beginning with a message sent on January 26 that included a photograph of Pearl with a gun pointed at his head.

In a second e-mail sent January 30, Daniel Pearl's kidnappers threatened to execute him if their demands were not met and threatened the lives of other American journalists in Pakistan. But before that message was sent, the indictment charges, the conspirators had already brutally killed Daniel Pearl and videotaped the mutilation of his body.

The additional indictment against Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh being unsealed today makes clear that Daniel Pearl was not the first American to fall victim to terror at the hands of Saeed. In October 1994, the indictment charges, Saeed met with Bela J. Nuss, an American tourist at a restaurant in New Delhi while scouting areas of the city known to be frequented by U.S. citizens and other westerners.

As in the case of Daniel Pearl, Saeed carefully selected Nuss, used lies to befriend him, and lured him to an isolated place where he was kidnapped at gunpoint. Also like the case of Daniel Pearl, Nuss was held in brutal isolation and photographed with a gun pointed at his head while Saeed and his co-conspirators communicated their demands to the media.

At the time of the 1994 kidnapping, the indictment states that Saeed was a member of the Harakat ul-Ansar, which was implicated in several terrorist acts against United States citizens in India during the 1990s.

The indictment charges Saeed with hostage taking and conspiracy to commit hostage taking. The United States has worked in cooperation with Pakistani and other authorities to build the case for Omar Saeed Sheikh announced today, but we pursue this case and we continue this investigation not merely to bring Daniel Pearl's killers to justice or to provide closure to Bela Nuss.

We pursue this case to uphold and protect the values that Daniel Pearl cherished and the freedoms he died exercising.

The men who conspired to kill Daniel Pearl and kidnap Bela Nuss did not act at random, but carefully choose their targets, their methods and their words. By killing Daniel Pearl and threatening other Americans, terrorists hope to send a message of defiance, but what survives is an unmistakable message of their fear. Stunted by their hatred, imprisoned in their lives, even terrorists understand as we understand that unfettered speech and open inquiry are the bedrock upon which freedom stands; what George Mason called the bulwark of liberty, and Thomas Jefferson included in the creed of our political faith, the text of our civil instruction that touched on by which we try the services of those we trust.

Where freedom is feared, men and women like Daniel Pearl will always be hunted. But where freedom is cherished, they will be forever defended.

With today's indictments, we begin the process of securing justice for Daniel Pearl and Bela Nuss, solace for their families and vindication for the values they and all civilized people share.

The department's investigation of this case is an ongoing one and we will not rest until we do everything possible to complete an understanding of the entirety of individuals charging and bringing to justice the entirety of the individuals involved.

Thank you. I'll be happy to go with questions.

QUESTION: General Ashcroft, what is the earliest that Saeed might be brought to the U.S., and how will that process work out?

ASHCROFT: Obviously, these indictments reflect the very serious interests that we have in him. We will be working with Pakistani authorities regarding any conveyance of the individual charged to the United States.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Could you tell us why you decided to announce these indictments now? Is this is a, for example, and effort to put more pressure on the Pakistani government to turn him over the United States or what was your thinking in making this action public at this time?

ASHCROFT: There are a variety of things. As you know, now that we are unsealing the indictment, which was originally rendered last fall, and we have not had that as an open indictment at that time, because if you open an indictment and people know you're chasing them, you reduce your likelihood of apprehending them. So obviously, we didn't apprehend him. But he is now, clearly, he understands that we are pursuing him.

We think it's important to have the charges clear and in place, so that, in the event, for some reason, he would, in any way, be released by other authorities, that we would be in a position to take him.

We know that in the brutal kidnapping of 1994, he was being held by authorities outside the United States. And his colleagues hijacked an airplane and occasioned his release. And we didn't have charges pending in that setting. And we feel that it's important for us to have charges pending, so in the event of a release, we are in a position to demand the individual's involvement here in the Justice system.

QUESTION: Are you prepared for an argument of double jeopardy, if he is tried and convicted and sentenced in Pakistan?

ASHCROFT: I don't want to discuss the legal ramifications of the case, but I think I can give you a short answer on that -- yes.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: General Ashcroft, two questions. One is, are there any co-conspirators currently in custody right now? And then secondly, I'm curious why in November, why he was indicted then, it was seven years after the crime.

ASHCROFT: We are going to continue pursuing leads to find other individuals involved in this matter. It's clear, from our perspective, that our indictment and the charges do not indicate that he acted alone.

Secondly, last November is a time when the U.S. attorney and the grand jury in the District of Columbia confronted the evidence and decided to issue the charges and to make the indictment at that time. To comment further on that would be inappropriate, except to say that the indictment was sealed at that time because we considered the individual a fugitive and thought that not sealing it might signal our interest in his apprehension.

QUESTION: Attorney General, the Pakistanis are trying to build a case against Sheikh now. Do we have any assurances from the Pakistanis that if they cannot build a case or if they can't convict him, that they will turn him over to U.S. custody?

ASHCROFT: We are collaborating with the Pakistanis and informing them of our interest, and we expect them to be cooperative. To say further at this time would be inappropriate.

QUESTION: Do you accept then that he goes on trial in Pakistan and then is sent to the United States, would that be acceptable to you?

ASHCROFT: I don't want to try and get into a wide range of hypotheticals. Obviously, they have him in custody now and we don't. And we are signaling our clear interest in trying him on these charges and bringing him to justice in the United States.

Yes sir?

QUESTION: There's another gentlemen, Adnan Khan (ph), who is reportedly in custody in Pakistan today who claiming responsibility for killing Danny while on board a boat on the Arabian Sea. Have you heard these reports? Is there any validity to them?

ASHCROFT: I'm not able to comment on those at this time. Yes ma'am?

QUESTION: Your indictment charges Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh with conspiracy to take Danny Pearl hostage. In your announcement you said that he was charged with murder. I'm curious if you're planning to issue (UNINTELLIGIBLE) indictment that would include murder charges, and if you just misspoke, or do you think he actually is responsible for the murder of Daniel Pearl?

ASHCROFT: Do you want to comment on that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The charge is, taking conspiracy and substantive taking of a hostage with death resulting, which is really what amounts to murder -- you do certain voluntary actions, and the person dies as a result.

ASHCROFT: Well said, Michael (ph). Yes sir?

QUESTION: Can you elaborate a little bit on the timing of his death? You had indicated that on the 30th of January you believe that he was murdered before the demands were sent. And also you suggested that the videotape is mutilation of his body. Does that mean that the videotape was filmed after he was already dead, and you were just (OFF-MIKE)

ASHCROFT: I think in the first instance regarding your question, we believe that he had been murdered in advance of that last communication you mentioned. And I think our statements speaks for itself. To state further, I would not on that.

Yes sir?

QUESTION: Sir, yesterday, to change the subject...

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We're going to get away from this. The news there, the indictments handed down for Omar Saeed Sheikh. We had anticipated those. What we probably did not anticipate, this case going back to 1994, eight years ago, an American kidnapped allegedly by the same man in New Delhi, held at gunpoint. There are many similarities between the two cases, but clearly the one difference here is that Danny Pearl was murdered. This other gentleman, Bella J. Nuss (ph) -- you may have heard his name in the past -- was not. He is alive today, living back in the U.S. We saw an interview with him just a few short weeks ago.

Back to Susan Candiotti in Washington watching and following this. What else did you hear, Susan?

CANDIOTTI: Well, what is also important about that 1994 case, which we have known and reported about, Bill, is that remember that that indictment was returned and sealed back in November and it was back, at that time, right after it was sealed, that U.S. authorities started going to Pakistan and urging them to find Saeed. And that, obviously, didn't happen, at least not apparently energetically enough in order to find him and then, Daniel Pearl was kidnapped. And then there was additional pressure put on the Pakistani government. So that was actually the first thing that led to the start of the pressure being placed upon the Pakistani government in order to capture those responsible for the kidnapping and death of Daniel Pearl. And the other thing that we learned that is important here is that evidently, earlier this day, the U.S. attorney general said that he met with the widow of Daniel Pearl, Mariane Pearl, and congratulated her on her courage and informed her first of what was to happen later this day, that these charges are being brought forward.

The other key thing we wanted to mention is the very last thing that you heard the attorney general being asked about, and that is we are learning more about the videotape and the timing of it. The attorney general now saying that the U.S. government and investigators believe that Daniel Pearl was already dead by the time that that second e-mail went out.

Again, very, very tragic news. It's something they suspected in terms of the timing. And we also know that, of course, the FBI has been helping the authorities over in Pakistan analyze that tape.

HEMMER: Bit of a safety net too we see too legally because of the situation going back to the millennium when that plane was hijacked. Saeed Sheikh said to be involved in that as well or people who are associated with him. That plane taken to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

Susan, thank you. Susan Candiotti in Washington.

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