Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A mighty heart: The story of Daniel and Mariane Pearl

Mariane Pearl has dropped a lawsuit seeking damages from a Pakistani bank and Al Qaeda for the 2002 murder of her husband Daniel Pearl. Her lawyers said Habib Bank Limited and other defendants had not answered the suit filed in a US court in July. The lawyers have so far not elaborated on the reasons for the withdrawal but it is safe to assume the defendents woould never have appeared in an American court.

The victim Daniel Pearl was a Wall St Journal correspondent who was abducted and later executed in Karachi in the aftermath of 9/11. Pearl’s kidnapping and his wife'a search for his captors are the subject of a movie currently in general release in Australian cinemas. “A Mighty Heart” was directed by prolific British auteur Michael Winterbottom and stars Angelina Jolie in the central role of Mariane Pearl. Jolie puts in a mesmerising performance of a woman desperate to seek her husband’s safe return while negotiating a minefield of police, media and governmental interests.

Pearl was the Journal’s South Asia Bureau Chief. Mariane, his French wife, was also a journalist. She was five months pregnant and the couple were due to return to the US to have the baby. Although based in Mumbai, the couple were in Karachi to check out Pakistani links to Richard Reid, the UK born Muslim convert who gained infamy as the "shoe bomber".

Daniel Pearl was born to a Jewish family on 10 October 1963 in Princeton, New Jersey, and grew up in Los Angeles. He graduated from Stamford University in 1985 with a degree in communications. He worked for several small newspapers before joining the Wall St Journal in 1990. He met Mariane in 1998 and moved to Paris where they married. Pearl was appointed Mumbai bureau chief two years later. There he began to cover the growing “war on terror” with occasional trips to Pakistan.

His investigations were taking him into murkier territory with possible links between radical elements and the Pakistan security agency the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). He was also looking at how the US trained the ISI during the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. Many people including Pearl’s biographer Bernard-Henri Lévy have implicated the ISI in his death despite the indignant denials of Musharraf’s regime.

On 23 January 2002, Pearl arranged to meet Sheik Ali Shah Gilani, a respected spiritual leader. Pearl had found out that Richard Reid met Gilani in Karachi prior to Reid’s unsuccessful attempt to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami with a bomb hidden in the lining of his shoes. On his way to meet Gilani, Pearl was kidnapped by a group calling itself The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. The group claimed variously that Pearl was a CIA or Mossad agent and demanded the US release prisoners from Guantanamo in exchange for his release. Nine days later, Pearl was murdered and beheaded. His body was cut up into ten pieces and dumped in a shallow grave near Karachi. His captors released a video of Pearl’s death.

In March this year, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told a U.S. military tribunal he personally beheaded Pearl. According to the Pentagon transcript, Mohammed admitted he was responsible for a string of high-profile attacks including Pearl’s death. "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan," he apparently held the tribunal. "For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head."

Winterbottom’s film about Pearl’s death was careful to take a non-political line. It did not preach and tried to tell the story from the view of the protagonist without taking sides. Winterbottom has made two other films about the Muslim world, “In This World” (about refugees) and “The Road to Guantanamo” (about political prisoners) where he has been more explicit about his ideals. “A Mighty Heart” was different. Winterbottom said he didn’t want to build opinions into the film. "We were making a film about a journalist and felt we should try to reflect that," he said. “Why try to dramatise it? Tell it as truthfully as you can."

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