Global Policy Forum

Pakistan Court Bars Release of U.S. Official Accused of Double Murder

The arrest of a US embassy official in Pakistan, Raymond Davis, puts into question one of the oldest principles of international law, diplomatic immunity.  Davis is accused of murdering two Pakistani men in Lahore; he claims he shot the men in self-defense.  The US embassy has indicated Davis is a member of its diplomatic staff and as such not liable for arrest; however, some reports claim Davis is an employee of a private security company.  If the latter is true, the US risks undermining reciprocity and mutual trust by making a false claim to diplomatic immunity.

By Alex Rodriguez

February 2, 2011

A Pakistani judge 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 be freed because he is a diplomat and therefore cannot be tried on criminal charges.

Lahore High Court Chief Justice Ijaz Chaudhry's ruling preventing Davis from being handed over to U.S. authorities comes as domestic pressure builds on the government to put Davis on trial. The case has stoked the already intense anti-American sentiment that pervades Pakistani society, and has been portrayed by many in the Pakistani news media as an illustration of U.S. arrogance.

The emotional uproar 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 United States, a major supplier of aid to Pakistan.

So far, Zardari and the ruling Pakistan People's Party have played it safe. The president told a U.S. congressional delegation Monday that the best tack would be to let the courts decide Davis' fate.

In his ruling, Chaudhry said the government would have 15 days to take a position on whether Davis was protected by diplomatic immunity, though he added that he would ultimately decide whether immunity applied.

"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 leading up to the shooting 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. He said he thought the men planned to rob him and that when one of them pointed a gun, he fired several times. One of the men died at the scene and the other died at a hospital.

A Toyota Land Cruiser carrying U.S. Consulate officials summoned to the scene by Davis went the wrong way on a one-way street and struck a man on a motorcycle, killing him, authorities said. Police say the consulate has yet to hand 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, which identifies him as Davis.

The embassy maintains that the official is protected by the Vienna Convention on 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.

Davis' exact duties remain 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 possess such weapons only 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 been controversial.


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