KARACHI, Pakistan – The fate of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl has become more of a mystery than ever, with the chief suspect on Thursday saying the journalist is dead but Pakistani officials announcing they were confident he is still alive.
Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born Muslim militant, admitted in court to kidnapping the newspaper correspondent and said, "as far as I understand, he's dead."
Pearl, 38, disappeared from the city of Karachi in southern Pakistan on Jan. 23 while investigating a story on Islamic militants. Saeed, 27, said he carried out the kidnapping of "my own free will."
He was formally charged with kidnapping and ordered jailed for two more weeks.
Officials pointed out that Saeed gave no details on where or when the journalist was allegedly killed, and just a day earlier, police said, he had told them Pearl was still alive.
"Until the body is found we cannot believe what Omar is saying," Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said. "We need proof or evidence. We will continue to work on him, grind him, ask him, 'Where was Pearl kept? Where is his body?' Omar himself admitted he masterminded and planned this crime."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Aziz Khan also denied Saeed's claims.
"This gentleman has been making several statements and changing these statements," he told reporters Thursday. "We cannot give any credence to any of these statements that he gives."
Steven Goldstein, spokesman for Dow Jones & Co., The Wall Street Journal's parent organization, said he had not heard about Saeed's statement.
"We continue to remain hopeful," Goldstein said. "We remain confident that Danny is still alive."
Driven to the tiny courthouse in a blue armored police van just before noon, Saeed looked more like a banker or lawyer than a terrorist. Despite being unshaven, he was generally clean-cut, with short, straight dark hair and gold wire-rimmed aviator style eyeglasses. His wrists were chained, and he spent much of the time with a sheet-like mask over his head.
Saeed made his appearance in the living-room-size courtroom surrounded by police with machine guns, helmets and bulletproof vests.
When the judge and prosecutor spent several minutes debated whether Saeed ought to be unmasked, Saeed pulled the sheet off his own head.
"It's OK, I want to show my face," he said.
The guards hastily covered his head back up, but the Judge ordered Saeed unmasked.
Sullen but seemingly unrepentant, Saeed took full responsibility for the kidnapping.
"I don't want to fight this case" Saeed told the judge. "I don't want a defense. Yes I did this."
He said he was motivated by his desire to stop America's meddling in Pakistan's affairs.
"Right or wrong, I have my own reasons for doing it," he said. "I think our country shouldn't be catering to America's needs."
Saeed also asked for medical attention for an unspecified condition. He also said he was in police custody a full week longer than the Pakistani authorities claimed.
"I was not arrested. I gave myself in on Feb. 5. I gave myself in after it became known that I was involved to save my family from harassment," Saeed told the court in a soft voice, barely audible at times.
Saeed said he had not been mistreated, however.
Then, as the judge ordered him back into police custody until the 25th of February, during which time the search for Danny Pearl could continue, Saeed interrupted.
"Can I make a statement? As far as I understand, he's dead," he said.
Goldstein said no representatives from the Wall Street Journal were present at the court proceedings. Pearl's wife, Mariane, who is pregnant with the couple's first child, also did not attend, but she pleaded for her husband's release in a letter to his captors.
"As you know, Danny is an innocent man, a journalist who has come to you as a guest with an open mind and the sole objective of writing about your views for a global audience," she wrote.
"Danny and I learned just two days before his disappearance that we would be bringing a boy into the world," she added. "Our child is a living soul. ... Since his father's disappearance, he is now breathing into his being the worry and apprehension I have about my husband's well being."
Jamil Yousuf, head of a citizens-police liaison committee involved in the investigation, said that Saeed asked the kidnappers on Feb. 5 to release Pearl. Since then, Yousuf claimed, Saeed said he has not been in touch with Pearl's captors.
Yousuf said Wednesday that Saeed told police threats to kill Pearl were not carried out.
"He's alive. He's OK," Yousuf had quoted Saeed as saying.
Yousuf called Saeed's statement in court Thursday "unexplainable."
"He is such a shrewd person," Yousuf said. "It's difficult to understand him."
At least eight to 10 more suspects were detained for questioning overnight, Yousuf added.
Saeed was arrested in India in 1994 for kidnapping Western backpackers in Kashmir. The kidnappers demanded the release of Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in the contested Himalayan region. Saeed was shot and wounded by police and the hostages were freed unharmed.
He spent the next five years in jail, but was never tried. He was freed in December 1999 after gunmen hijacked an Indian Airlines jet to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and demanded the release of Saeed and two other militants.
Saeed's surrender was considered the biggest break so far in the Pearl case.
Police hoped it would help them find Pearl, who disappeared on his way to meet with Islamic extremist contacts. He was believed to be investigating links between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, accused of trying to detonate explosives hidden in his sneakers on a Paris-to-Miami flight in December.
Four days after Pearl disappeared, an e-mail sent to Pakistani and international media showed photos of him in captivity and demanded that the United States repatriate Pakistanis captured in Afghanistan and now detained at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A second e-mail sent Jan. 30 said Pearl would be killed in 24 hours. That was the last known message from his captors.
Three men accused of sending the e-mails — police constable Sheikh Mohammed Adeel, Fahad Naseem and Salman Saqib — were formally charged with kidnapping Tuesday and ordered held for two more weeks.
Pakistan has been a key supporter of the U.S. war against terrorism in Afghanistan, allowing U.S. forces to use Pakistani air bases. Saeed's court appearance came a day after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf met with President Bush at the White House. After that meeting, Bush told reporters that he and the Pakistani leader share a "mutual desire that Mr. Pearl return home safely."
Saeed's surrender was a boost for Musharraf before his meeting with Bush. Musharraf sought U.S. economic and political support to help combat Muslim extremism in this predominantly Islamic country of 147 million people.
Pearl's kidnapping has hampered Musharraf's efforts to dispel Pakistan's image as a center of Islamic extremism. Musharraf said he was expecting some "fallout" from his government's recent promise to root out religious extremism and shut down militant Islamic groups.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.