LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — A Pakistani court declined to rule Monday on whether a detained CIA contractor on trial for killing two Pakistanis has diplomatic immunity as the United States insists, saying the government itself had not given a clear opinion on the matter.
The ruling by Lahore High Court suggest there will be no quick resolution to a case that has exposed sharp tensions between Washington and Islamabad. It also appears to reflect the extreme reluctance on the part of Pakistani officials to make what could be an explosive decision on the fate of the American contractor, Raymond Allen Davis.
Davis was arrested in late January after he shot two Pakistani men he claims were trying to rob him.
The 36-year-old Virginia native is currently on trial for the killings but has yet to be formally charged.
The United States is demanding Davis be immediately freed because he has diplomatic immunity. Under pressure from Islamist parties and sections of the media who are calling for Davis to be tried, the weak U.S.-backed government has not stated whether he has immunity, saying — incorrectly according to U.S. officials — it was for the courts to decide.
Chief Justice Ejaz Chaudhry said the trial court, due to convene on Wednesday, would now decide on whether Davis has immunity, something that could take weeks or months.
The Lahore High Court had asked that Pakistan’s Foreign Office tell it whether Davis has immunity, but Chaudhry said this was not touched upon in the government’s submission to the court on Monday.
The killings have inflamed Pakistani public opinion and angered Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, which has complained that the CIA is running covert operations in the country and faced criticism for apparently being unaware of this.
The government could face a storm of criticism and street demonstrations if Davis walks free. But keeping him in jail risks a rupture in ties with the United States, its major Western ally and backer, that would have grave implications for the fight against al-Qaida as well as the war in Afghanistan.
Given the high-stakes involved, many people have spoken of the possibility of some kind of backroom deal to free Davis, presumably with the backing of Pakistan’s army and intelligence agencies. Dragging out the decision on his immunity could give this approach time to work and possibly allow public anger to subside.