Pakistan will tell a court that most of its legal experts believe a detained American has diplomatic immunity, but will leave it to a judge to rule on his status, an official said Tuesday — a sign that Islamabad is trying to give the U.S. an opening to free the man while avoiding domestic backlash.
Raymond Davis has been held by Pakistani authorities since he fatally shot two Pakistanis in the eastern city of Lahore on Jan. 27, and his case has become a bitter point of contention between Washington and Islamabad, two countries whose relationship is considered key to ending the war in Afghanistan.
The U.S. says Davis, a former Special Forces soldier and an embassy worker, shot two robbers in self-defense and that his detention is illegal under international agreements covering diplomats. U.S. officials have threatened to withhold billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan to get Davis freed.
Pakistani government officials for days have avoided taking a definitive stand on Davis’ legal status in the face of popular anger over the shootout. Thousands have rallied against Davis, demanding he be hanged.
Police say their investigation found Davis committed a “cold-blooded murder” and that that’s the charge they’ll pursue in court.
However, a Pakistani official told The Associated Press on Tuesday that after reviewing the matter, most of the experts in Pakistan’s legal and foreign offices believe that Davis is immune from prosecution. The government is expected to give documents laying out the opinions to the Lahore High Court during a hearing about Davis’ status on Thursday.
But government officials want the court to make a final ruling on the subject of Davis’ immunity, the Pakistani official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.
The official said no one in the government wanted to be a victim of popular anger if Davis is freed.
The official also said that Kerry, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was expected to issue a statement of regret over the incident, though American officials would not confirm that. The embassy described Kerry’s visit as a way for the U.S. to remind Pakistan of the strategic importance of their relationship.
U.S. officials in Islamabad declined to comment directly on the Pakistani government’s plans, but on Monday in Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley voiced concern over the Feb. 17 court hearing. He said the Vienna Convention regarding diplomats’ status clearly states, “this is not a matter for local courts to decide, and we continue to insist that Pakistan certify his diplomatic immunity and release him.”
There has also been controversy in Pakistan over the fact that Davis was armed. A senior U.S. official has told The Associated Press that Davis was authorized by the United States to carry a weapon, but that it was a “gray area” whether Pakistani law permitted him to do so.
The U.S. has not stated specifically what Davis’ job is, other than saying he’s a part of the embassy’s “administrative and technical staff,” which leaves room for the possibility he works in the security field.
In a video clip aired by a private Pakistani channel, Davis is seen telling Pakistani police that he works for the embassy and that he was a consultant for the U.S. consulate in Lahore. He also says he works for the RAO — an apparent reference to the Americans’ Regional Affairs Office.
The U.S. Embassy says Davis has a diplomatic passport and a visa valid through June 2012. It also says that the U.S. had notified the Pakistani government of Davis’ assignment more than a year ago.
After the shootings in Lahore, Davis called for backup. The American car rushing to the scene hit a third Pakistani, a bystander, who later died. The U.S. has said nothing about the Americans involved in that third death, though Pakistani police have said they want to question them as well.