ISLAMABAD -- A Pakistani judge on Tuesday barred authorities from releasing an American consulate official accused of double murder despite the U.S. government's insistence that diplomatic immunity shields him from prosecution.
Five days after Raymond Davis shot to death two Pakistani men in the eastern city of Lahore in what he said was self-defense, authorities here showed no signs of bowing to demands from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad that the 36-year-old American should be freed because he is a diplomat and therefore cannot be tried on criminal charges.
Lahore High Court Chief Justice Ejaz Chaudhry's ruling to keep Davis from being handed over to U.S. authorities came as domestic pressure built on the government to put the American on trial. The case has stoked the already intense anti-American sentiments that pervade Pakistani society, and has been portrayed by many in the Pakistani media as an illustration of U.S. arrogance.
The emotional tidal wave that the shooting created has forced President Asif Ali Zardari's government into a corner. Zardari risks a massive popular backlash if he frees Davis under pressure from the U.S., a major supplier of aid to Pakistan.
So far, Zardari and the ruling Pakistan People's Party have played it safe. On Monday, the Pakistani president told a U.S. congressional delegation that the best tack would be to let the courts decide the American's fate. In issuing his ruling, Chaudhry said the government would have 15 days to take a position on whether Davis is protected by diplomatic immunity, though he added that he would ultimately decide whether the immunity applies.
"It's an extremely delicate situation for the government," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security analyst. "If Zardari lets (Davis) go, then he faces a lot of criticism ... and the government would be completely isolated from the political domain. But prosecuting him creates problems with Pakistan's relations with the U.S. So in both situations, the government is in trouble."
The events that led up to the shooting last Thursday remain hotly disputed. Davis told police he had just withdrawn money from a bank in Lahore and was stopped at a traffic-choked intersection when two men on a motorcycle and armed with handguns approached. Davis said he thought they were going to rob him, and when one of them pointed a gun he fired several times. One man died at the scene, and the other died later at a local hospital.
A Toyota Land Cruiser carrying U.S. Consulate officials summoned to the scene by Davis went the wrong way and struck a man on a motorcycle, killing him, authorities said. Police say the consulate has yet to turn over the driver of that vehicle.
The U.S. government has not released the name of the arrested American, but Pakistani authorities have publicized his passport that identifies him as Raymond Davis.
The embassy maintains the consulate official is protected by the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations, which accords immunity to all diplomats. Embassy officials say he is a member of the U.S. mission's technical and administrative staff, which accords him immunity under the Vienna Convention.
Davis' exact role at the consulate remains unclear, and the embassy has not clarified what his position is. It also has not said why he was carrying a firearm. Under Pakistani law, officials with embassies and foreign missions can only possess such weapons if they obtain permission from the Pakistani Foreign Office. The issue of American diplomats and security officials traveling through the country while carrying firearms has sparked controversy in the past.
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