Four Charged With Reporter Pearl's Kidnap, Murder

Four suspects, including British-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, were charged in a Pakistani court on Friday with the kidnap and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, the chief prosecutor said.

"All the four accused have been charged with kidnapping for ransom, murder and terrorism," Raja Qureshi, chief prosecutor for the province of Sindh, told reporters outside the courtroom in Karachi. "These charges carry a normal sentence of death."

Wall Street Journal reporter Pearl was abducted in the port city of Karachi on January 23 while trying to contact radical Islamic groups and investigate possible links between alleged shoe bomber Richard Reid and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda Network.

Although his body has never been found, his kidnappers released a graphic video showing Pearl being murdered.

Earlier Omar and fellow suspect Sheikh Adil were whisked into an Anti-Terrorist Court in Karachi, capital of Sindh, in an armoured police truck amid tight security. There was no sign of the two other accused, Salman Saquib and Fahad Naseem. The case is seen a key test of Pakistan's resolve in dealing with suspected Muslim hardliners as part of its role in the U.S.-led war on terror.

Omar has also been indicted by a U.S. court on one count of hostage-taking and one of conspiring to take hostages resulting in the death of Pearl.

But Pakistan's government has said it would only consider extraditing him once its own trial is complete.\

Horrifying videoQureshi said the judge had fixed March 29 for the start of the trial, which would be held under a special anti-terrorism law. "The trial has to be completed within seven days," he said.

Qureshi said the prosecution had 31 witnesses, including FBI officials.

"Besides circumstantial evidence about Daniel Pearl's kidnapping, the prosecution has produced a copy of the video tape showing the horrifying scenes of Pearl's beheading and emails demanding ransom," Qureshi said.

During the hearing, at least 500 police officers surrounded the court building as others with high-powered weapons surveyed the scene from rooftops. Paramilitary rangers were also out in force.

Police blocked off the usually busy roads around the court and the gate to the building with some two dozen vans.

"It's a high-profile case and we have stepped up security because of the incidents of terrorism in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad over the past two weeks," a senior police officer told Reuters

Born in 1974, Omar is the son of a wholesale clothes merchant from Wanstead in northeast London who went to an expensive school but dropped out of one of Britain's top universities, the London School of Economics. In 1994, Indian police arrested Omar and accused him of involvement in the kidnapping of three Britons and an American tourist.

Omar and two other alleged militants were freed from an Indian jail in 1999 in exchange for 155 hostages held on an Indian airliner hijacked to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

India has also accused him of involvement in the September 11 attacks on the United States.