Omar Saeed Sheikh in 2002.

Photo: aamir qureshi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

ISLAMABAD—Pakistani authorities issued an emergency order to prevent the release of prisoners who had their convictions for kidnapping and killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl overturned by an appeals court earlier this week.

The order is intended to keep British national Omar Saeed Sheikh, convicted of the 2002 murder that same year, and three Pakistanis convicted as accomplices, in jail for three months while prosecutors seek a suspension of the appeals court ruling until it is reviewed by the Supreme Court.

The move late Thursday night comes after a court in the southern city of Karachi overturned the convictions earlier that day.

Mr. Sheikh’s death sentences on three convictions for organizing the abduction and murder were reduced to seven years in prison on the sole charge of simple kidnapping. He has already been in prison for 18 years, meaning that he could be eligible for release now. The other men, also imprisoned since 2002, had their convictions for assisting Mr. Sheikh thrown out altogether. They too could be eligible for immediate release.

Judea Pearl, father of the slain journalist, called ruling to overturn the convictions “reprehensible” in a tweet after the decision. International attention should be focused on assuring the prisoners aren’t released before the Supreme Court reviews the ruling, he said in an emailed comment.

On Friday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that the court ruling had undermined the effort and sacrifices Pakistan has made fighting terrorism, as well as its contribution to the peace process next door in Afghanistan.

“I am shocked at the decision, especially its timing,” Mr. Qureshi told a local news channel, adding that he had not been contacted by U.S. officials over it. “This verdict, for no reason, has put a question mark over Pakistan’s efforts.”

Senior U.S. diplomat Alice Wells, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, sharply criticized the ruling on Twitter on Thursday, calling it “an affront to victims of terrorism everywhere.“

The order keeps Mr. Sheikh and his accomplices in prison for three months under a provision of the law intended to preserve public safety, said Faiz Shah, the provincial public prosecutor.

During that period he said his office will prepare an appeal against Thursday’s ruling that will include an application to suspend the lower court ruling until the Supreme Court hears the appeal.

“This will give us sufficient time,” said Mr. Shah. “It prevents his release.”

Mr. Sheikh’s lawyer, Mahmood Sheikh, said that his client should be set free. The lawyer said he considering challenging the detention order, which he said was “rooted in malice.”

Mr. Pearl was the Journal’s bureau chief for South Asia. He was reporting on religious extremism in Pakistan when he was kidnapped in Karachi in January 2002 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. He was beheaded days later.

In a statement on Thursday, Dow Jones, the Journal’s publisher, said, “We continue to seek justice for the murder of Daniel Pearl. Danny was a cherished colleague and we will always honor his memory and service.”

The appeals court this week ruled that there wasn’t evidence that Mr. Sheikh killed Daniel Pearl, and rejected computer evidence that Mr. Sheikh and his accomplices had sent ransom notes after the kidnapping.

The court, however, did find that Mr. Sheikh had met Mr. Pearl in the northern city of Rawalpindi, promised to arrange a meeting for him with a religious cleric and later called the reporter to Karachi for that appointment. It said that Mr. Sheikh was the last person seen with Mr. Pearl alive, at the agreed rendezvous in Karachi.

The court overturned the murder and terrorism convictions handed down to Mr Sheikh in the 2002 trial, and it downgraded the original kidnapping for ransom conviction to the lesser offense of kidnapping.

Write to Saeed Shah at

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