When the Courageous Fall

The release of one of Daniel Pearl's killers is an injustice with precedent

My interest in Irish crime writer Nicola Tallant’s new best-seller The Witness prompted me to watch a film about Veronica Guerin’s life starring Cate Blanchett. It wasn’t a great movie, and I knew the ending, but ever since I started researching Rose Dugdale, I’ve been interested in troubles of another sort in 1980s Ireland—the heroin epidemic that plagued that beautiful country.

Guerin took on the major drug dealers fearlessly, and she paid for it with her life when she was shot to death in her car by assassins who approached and escaped on a motorcycle.

Guerin had the sort of courage that warranted the extensive attention her murder elicited. Her actual life story is yet more rich and interesting than any movie could recreate.

As I considered her life, I was struck by the similarity to another brave slain reporter whose name was in the news this week: Daniel Pearl.

Pearl was the South Asia Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal, and was based in Mumbai, India, when he went to Pakistan to research Richard Reid, the al Qaeda terrorist who, 19 years ago this week, attempted to detonate bombs engineered into his shoes aboard an American Airlines flight. My friend, Hermis Moutardier, bravely fought the massive terrorist alongside her colleague. Christina Jones, and prevented the death of nearly 200 people.

While in Pakistan, Reid made contact with Omar Sheikh, a former student at the London School of Economics, who lured him to a meeting with an Islamic cleric. Pearl had established a relationship with Sheikh and even discussed concerns about their wives, who were both pregnant at the time. But Sheikh’s collegiality was a ruse, and Pearl was kidnapped by Islamic extremists and ultimately beheaded at the hand of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.

Sheikh was later arrested and convicted of Pearl’s murder. But a Pakistani court incredibly downgraded Sheikh’s conviction to mere kidnapping, which carries only a seven year sentence. And since he had already served 18 years in prison, the man who led Pearl to his demise was freed. Pearl’s family’s attorneys are appealing. It’s disgusting that they are still being made to relive this atrocity.

This injustice brings another parallel to Veronica Guerin’s murder. Despite testimony from a witness, the man widely believed to be behind Guerin’s murder, drug dealer John Gilligan, escaped conviction for that crime.

Even in cases involving truly brazen and heinous crimes perpetrated by the most evil amongst us, true justice can be elusive. Fortunately, the names of Veronica Guerin and Daniel Pearl still resonate even as many years have passed. Their courageous efforts and commitment to their craft were just too inspiring for their names to fade into memory. We’re better off for both of them.

Note: Shiekh’s early release has parallels to yet another horrific crime with an anniversary this month. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am flight 103 was blown from the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board. The key figure in that terrorist attack, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was released in 2009 from a life sentence in prison on the grounds of a compassionate release due to his alleged imminent death from cancer. The mass-murderer lived another three years as a free man before actually succumbing to his cancer.