A Pakistan court yesterday acquitted two men sentenced to death over a 2002 bombing that killed 11 French engineers, the highest number of Westerners to have died in a single attack in the country.
Asif Zaheer and Mohammad Rizwan, who allegedly belonged to al-Qaeda-linked extremist group Harkatul Mujahideen al-Aalmi, were arrested in December 2002, seven months after the attack in Pakistan's financial capital Karachi.
In 2003, an anti-terror court convicted them on multiple counts of assisting the suicide attack, which killed 11 French engineers and three Pakistanis outside the Sheraton Hotel, and sentenced them to death and 50 years in prison.
A suicide bomber rammed a Toyota Corolla sedan packed with 140 to 150 kilogrammes (300 to 330 pounds) into a bus as it collected the Frenchmen from the hotel.
They were helping Pakistan build its first locally made submarine.
Zaheer and Rizwan appealed to the high court in the southern province of Sindh, which acquitted the men Tuesday and ordered their release, but only if they were not wanted by police over other charges, officials said.
"After considering the material available on record we are of the considered view that the prosecution has failed to prove the case against the appellants beyond any reasonable doubt," said an order from the Sindh high court.
"The appellants are acquitted from the charges levelled against them and are at liberty. They shall be released forthwith if they are not required in any other custody matter," said the court order.
The men's lawyer Mohammad Farooq said police failed to prove that his clients belonged to the banned extremist group.
"The charges against my clients about their link with any extremist group were not proved," said Farooq, adding that he feared his clients could be re-arrested.
"I have not got the release order so far because we fear they will be re-arrested on other charges," added Farooq.
In 2003, an anti-terror court also sentenced a third man, Mohammad Sohail, to death in absentia in 2003 over the bombing that killed the French engineers.
Sohail was arrested in March 2005 and has challenged his death sentence. A re-trial into his case is ongoing, Farooq said.
Police said that in initial interrogation, Sohail confessed to a role in the 2002 killing of US journalist Daniel Pearl and a failed December 2003 bomb attack on then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf's motorcade.
Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi in January 2002 while writing about Islamist militancy in nuclear-armed Pakistan. A video showing his beheading was delivered to the US consulate in the city nearly a month later.
Investigators have said Sohail, who was said to be a senior member of a militant group called Harkat Jihad-e-Islami, could be the cameraman who made the video of Pearl's killing.