KARACHI, Pakistan — A Pakistani court on Thursday ordered the release of four men being held over the 2002 abduction and killing of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, arguing that they had been acquitted months ago, and that their continued detention was illegal.
“These men have been rotting in jail for 18 years without committing any crime,” the presiding judge said, according to local media reports.
Mr. Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was abducted and killed in the southern port city of Karachi while working on an investigation about militant groups’ links to Al Qaeda.
In April, the High Court in Sindh Province overturned the murder conviction of Ahmed Omar Sheikh, a British national and militant accused of masterminding Mr. Pearl’s abduction and killing. They said there was enough evidence against Mr. Sheikh to support the abduction charge, but not murder. The court reduced his sentence to seven years, a move that would allow him to walk free since he had already been in jail for 18 years.
The convictions of three other men on murder and kidnapping charges were also overturned in April. But the Pakistani authorities had all four men rearrested a day after the court’s acquittals on a measure that allows the government to hold terrorism suspects for up to three months. That measure was repeatedly extended, which the High Court said Thursday was illegal, according to a copy of the order shared with The New York Times.
Pakistan’s government appealed to the Supreme Court to reinstate the guilty verdicts, and Mr. Pearl’s family filed a petition asking the justices to stay the lower court’s acquittal order. The appeals filed by Pakistan’s government and the Pearl family are set to be heard by the Supreme Court on Jan. 5.
Ruth Pearl, Mr. Pearl’s mother, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Faisal Siddiqi, a lawyer for the Pearl family, said on Thursday that he did not expect the men would be released from jail, but that if they were, it may not be for long.
“If the appeals are allowed, they go to jail permanently,” Mr. Siddiqi said.
The authorities could once again block the court order, but the provincial court in Karachi on Thursday directed security agencies not to place Mr. Sheikh or the other accused men under “any preventive detention.”
After the court’s decision, relatives of the men reached Karachi jail, but the jail administration said they had not received release orders yet, said Munawar Ahmed, a relative of Fahad Naseem, one of Mr. Sheikh’s convicted associates.
“With the blessing of God, it is proven again that four men were innocent,” Mr. Ahmed said. “It is a victory of justice and truth.”
Mr. Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi on Jan. 23, 2002, as he was pursuing a story about Islamic extremism. He was beheaded in early February, in a compound deep in the slums of Karachi.
Soon after Mr. Pearl’s killing, Pakistan’s government, then led by President Pervez Musharraf, moved quickly to arrest Mr. Sheikh and the other men, amid a global outcry and pressure from the United States. The Bush administration requested Mr. Sheikh’s extradition.
American officials said that in 2007, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, accused of masterminding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, confessed to personally carrying out Mr. Pearl’s murder.
The confession failed to result in the release of Mr. Sheikh, a known jihadi who once studied at the London School of Economics.
Mr. Sheikh was one of three convicted terrorists freed by India in 1999 in exchange for passengers of a hijacked airline. The Pakistani military said it had foiled an attempt by militants to free him from a prison in Sindh Province in 2016.
A report by students and faculty at the journalism program of Georgetown University and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists said the four were involved in a plot to abduct Mr. Pearl but were not responsible for his actual murder.
The report said Mr. Pearl’s killing melded Al Qaeda operatives with Pakistani militants, the beginning of what turned out to be a lethal combination that has plagued Pakistan ever since.
Zia ur-Rehman reported from Karachi, and Emily Schmall from New Delhi.