LAHORE, Pakistan – A Pakistan court on Thursday put off ruling whether a US official accused of double murder has diplomatic immunity, threatening to prolong a crisis with Washington for another month.
The court adjourned until March 14, extending tensions between the United States and Pakistan, where an anti-American population of 167 million is ruled by a weak and unpopular government closely allied in the US war in Afghanistan.
Raymond Davis, whom Washington insists has diplomatic immunity, says he acted in self-defence when he shot dead two men in a busy street in the eastern city of Lahore on January 27.
A third Pakistani died when struck by a US diplomatic vehicle that came to Davis’s assistance. The American was then arrested by Pakistani police, who have rubbished his claim of self-defence and accused him of double murder.
“As the deputy attorney general has requested three weeks to submit a reply on the status of Raymond Davis, the case is adjourned until March 14,” Lahore high court chief justice Ijaz Mohammad Chaudhry said.
Reacting to the hearing, US ambassador Cameron Munter said the US was “disappointed that the government of Pakistan did not certify that Raymond Davis has diplomatic immunity.”
But US Senator John Kerry, who visited Pakistan this week to discuss Davis’ fate, later Thursday suggested that a solution to the bitter dispute could come “in the next days.”
“We just need to work through the process the way we are in the next days, and hopefully we get to a better place,” said Kerry, back in the United States.
The government in Islamabad is under enormous domestic pressure not to be seen as kowtowing to US demands for Davis’ release and has come under fire over how American officials are seemingly free to drive around with loaded weapons.
“This is not a simple case. It has legal, social, political and international implications, and the government therefore wants to find a solution with consensus,” Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said.
But political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP: “The longer the delay, the more difficult it will become for the government. You create room for a lot of speculation.”
Another court on Thursday remanded Davis in custody until March 3 in a separate case of illegal arms possession, the American making an appearance by video link from jail, said Punjab government prosecutor Abdul Samad.
Demonstrators in Multan, the home town of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, burnt the US flag and an effigy of Kerry, witnesses said.
Many Pakistanis remain suspicious about why Davis, who reportedly worked for a security contractor, was carrying loaded weapons and a GPS satellite tracking device. US authorities say he is a diplomat assigned to the US embassy.
A statement on January 28 that identified him as a “staff member of the US consulate general in Lahore” was a mistake owing to the “effort to get information out”, US embassy spokeswoman Courtney Beale told AFP on Thursday.
Under international laws, embassy diplomats have full diplomatic immunity whereas consulate officials are liable to detention in case of grave crimes.
“When we checked the diplomatic note we realised that he was assigned to the embassy. We mistakenly said he was with the consulate,” Beale said.
When it came to not releasing his identity, she said Davis gave them permission to use his name only after a week.
Pakistan’s unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari and Gilani, struggling to keep his coalition in power, say it is up to the courts to decide on the case.
On Wednesday, Gilani asked Islamic scholars to help, suggesting that the families might pardon the American and telling clerics that the government was caught between a public backlash and international anger.
Analysts suggest that compensation negotiated by the government and paid by the Americans would be the best resolution. Endorsement by leading clerics could be used to satisfy the religious right-wing.
The United States has postponed a round of high-level talks with Afghanistan and Pakistan following failed attempts to get Davis out, and some US lawmakers have threatened to cut payments to Pakistan unless he is freed.
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