June issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

Through the night of May 16, police mobiles conducted a desperate search for medico-legal experts. The task at hand demanded immediate attention, but few medical experts were keen to lend their services since the job was as unpleasant a prospect as it was daunting: the exhumation of a corpse believed to be that of American journalist, Daniel Pearl. “No one wanted to volunteer their services because of the stakes involved. If it is proved that the body is Pearl’s then anyone involved in identifying the corpse is likely to face threats to his life from militants, and he will not be able to remain anonymous because he will have to record his statements later in court,” said one of the doctors who was called upon. He, along with the others who eventually performed the task were, however, not given any choice but to oblige the police after they received strict directives from the senior administration to comply with their orders.

When the team, comprising at least six doctors, three para-medics, three grave-diggers, an area magistrate, some police officials, and a few others was finally assembled, they made their way to the alleged site the corpse was buried in — Ahsanabad in the Gulshan-e-Maymar township near Sohrab Goth, a locality populated mostly by Afghan nationals, some of whom had known links with the former Taliban regime as well as with assorted outlawed radical groups in Pakistan. After a long drive the group arrived at their destination: a 1000-yard plot which appeared to be a makeshift plant nursery, flanked by madaris, the Fahimul Quran on one side and the Jamia Rasheedia to its rear.

Waiting for them at the site were dozens of police mobiles and para-military troops. However, there ensued a long wait of three hours before any action was initiated.

The digging started when two officials from the US consulate in Karachi arrived. Says a police official who was present during the exhumation of the dead body, “Although the grave-diggers were highly professional, they nevertheless had to take repeated breaks because of a real danger of suffocation since they had to go down to more than four and a half feet to get to the corpse. The operation thus took them more than three hours.” According to a doctor, “The body, dismembered into 10 parts, was lying on its back, and the head, which was severed, had been placed in an upright position, balanced on the base of the neck. The corpse’s head, chest and abdomen were unearthed, the latter having been cut at the level of the twelfth rib. We also found both arms intact with hands, but severed from the torso at the shoulder. Both legs had also been amputated at the hip joints, and the legs further severed at the knees. The left foot had been separated from the ankle joint.”

The police also recovered three pieces of green rope, two Immodium capsules (anti-diarrhoea, pills), two car seats, a multicoloured piece of cloth apparently from the tracksuit worn by the victim, and three blue plastic bags smeared with bloodstains, from the grave. “There are indications that the victim was killed elsewhere and his remains were transported to this site in the polythene bags,” a source disclosed.

Subsequent tests conducted on the remains of the deceased determined that the killing took place on January 29 or 30.

Pearl had disappeared from Karachi on January 23, while investigating links between Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network and suspected shoe-bomber, Richard Reid. Images of Pearl with his hands bound and a pistol pointed to his head were subsequently e-mailed to media organisations. In February, a video film was delivered to US officials in Karachi with graphic footage of Pearl’s gruesome execution. Since then, police investigators had been trying to locate Pearl’s remains.

An unknown organisation calling itself the Hezbullah Alami has claimed responsibility for Pearl’s slaying, as well as the bus bombing in Karachi which killed 14 people, including 11 Frenchmen, and the grenade attack on a church in Islamabad. The claim was made by an anonymous caller to a senior correspondent of a local English newspaper. However, government officials are not verifying the claim. Earlier, e-mails that were sent to assorted newspapers by Pearl’s kidnappers were signed by a group going by the name of the ‘National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty.’ It was the first anyone had heard of this organisation.

Although senior police officials claimed they were tipped off about the location of the corpse by one of their informers, inside sources contend they learnt of the whereabouts of the body while interrogating religious militants who were arrested in the wake of the May 13 suicide bomb attack in Karachi. According to these sources, the men — Adnan, Haider and Tauheed — belonged to the outlawed sectarian group, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. They are believed to be among seven alleged co-conspirators of Sheikh Saeed Omar, the prime suspect in Daniel Pearl’s murder case, presently facing trial in Hyderabad. Sources say that the three activists revealed to the police during interrogation that the US journalist had been kept in a house in Orangi Town, and after his murder, his remains were dumped in a desolate spot in Gadap Town.

The evidence unearthed corroborates the information provided by the men. “We didn’t find any bloodstains at the site the corpse was recovered from, nor any weapons,” said a police official.

The police also reportedly arrested the owner of the property, but released him after ascertaining that he had no connection with the case. Said one of the investigators in the case, “I cannot divulge the man’s name for security reasons. However, I can confirm he had nothing to do with Pearl’s kidnapping and murder.”

Although positive identification of the corpse cannot be made until all the dental records and DNA tests have been conducted — a procedure which could take at least a month — preliminary investigation carried out by the doctors indicates that the body is that of 38-year-old Pearl. Local doctors who carried out the autopsy of the decomposed corpse in Karachi in the presence of FBI agents confirmed that the body is that of a white male, and determined that he was around 5 foot 8 inches in height.

A local forensic expert who was part of the autopsy team disclosed that one of the victim’s teeth was missing, and there are indications that it was deliberately removed by his murderers to camouflage his identity since it is known that Pearl had a gold tooth. The expert maintained that the victim had an overbite, which is consistent with Pearl’s dental features.

The doctors also found a deformity in the victim’s left foot. “The FBI agents who were present during the autopsy continuously asked us whether we could determine whether the victim had any noticeable deformity in his left foot because they had reports that Pearl’s left foot was deformed,” says a doctor.

It was determined through the autopsy that the victim’s neck was separated with a sharp device from the fourth cervical bone, and the body was dismembered after he had died. One of the findings of the autopsy was intriguing. It was ascertained that the victim was not circumcised. “We were a little surprised about this finding since Pearl was a Jew, and like Muslims, Jews usually circumcise their male children,” said a doctor. Confir-mation of whether Pearl was circumcised or not is yet to come from either Pearl’s parents or his wife.

Although it is assumed that the corpse had been buried at least four months ago, doctors said that the skin in some parts of the body was intact when exhumed. In normal circumstances, when the body is buried, the liquefied, disintegrated soft tissues separate from the bones and fall off. The bones are consequently exposed and the orbits are empty. The body is thus skeletonised in one to three months. However, a forensic expert disclosed, “The state of the corpse varies widely depending on the manner of burial, the temperature and the medium in which the body lies. Therefore it is generally not possible to give a definite opinion on the time of death.”

Despite the evidence pointing to the likelihood of the corpse being that of Daniel Pearl, police officials are reluctant to offer any confirmation of the fact. “The indications are that it is Daniel Pearl’s corpse, but unless the DNA test is conducted we cannot officially confirm it,” said Syed Kamal Shah, inspector general, police, Sindh. During a press conference Shah contended that the corpse was badly decomposed and not “positively identifiable” until more tests were conducted.

To carry out further scientific investigations, body viscera, including some of the victim’s bones and pieces of his skin, hair samples, teeth and the mud from the grave he was found in, have been sent to the US. The authorities in Pakistan, however, have also decided to carry out testing of the remains, which have been sent to Lahore for chemical examination, histopathological and DNA tests. “The Pakistani authorities decided to carry out these investigations in Pakistan because they believe that if only conducted in America, the defence of the four accused, presently under trial in the Daniel Pearl murder case, may challenge the authenticity of these reports,” maintained an inside source. Technical experts disclosed that the authorities in Pakistan have requested US authorities to provide them Pearl’s dental records and other data to enable them to carry out these tests at home.

Sources in the local medico-legal fraternity maintained that this will not be the first time DNA testing has been done in Lahore. According to them, the DNA test of a Chinese restaurant owner who was brutally murdered near Tariq road in Karachi earlier this year, was successfully carried out in Lahore. “The facilities in the Lahore lab may not be great, but they have the capability to carry out reliable scientific investigations,” contended a doctor.

Currently the victim’s exhumed body parts are lying under police custody in the Edhi morgue at Sohrab Goth. Sources said that the US has arranged for a special air-tight coffin to store the body parts to keep them from further decomposition. Police have been deployed outside the morgue to secure it.

If the corpse is positively identified as being that of Daniel Pearl’s, it will be a step forward. However, only if and when those responsible for the terrible crime have been identified and suitably punished, will the case truly be laid to rest.