- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ISLAMABAD (AP) — 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 Allen 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Davis freed.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry was expected to arrive in Pakistan later Tuesday to discuss the case with senior Pakistani officials, the U.S. Embassy confirmed.

Pakistani government officials have avoided taking a definitive stand on Mr. Davis‘ legal status in the face of popular anger over the shootout. Thousands have rallied against Mr. Davis, demanding he be hanged, while the Taliban have threatened attacks against any Pakistani government official involved in freeing the 36-year-old Virginia native.

Police say their investigation found Mr. Davis committed a “cold-blooded murder” and that that’s the charge they’ll pursue in court. It hasn’t helped that the government of Punjab province, where any trial would be held, is run by a party that is a rival to the one running the federal government.

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 Mr. 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 Mr. Davis‘ status on Thursday.

But government officials want the court to make a final ruling on the subject of Mr. Davis‘ immunity, the Pakistani official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. He said that after seeing the records, it will be difficult for the court to deny Mr. Davis immunity, though Pakistani courts can be unpredictable.

The official said no one in the government wanted to be a victim of popular anger if Mr. Davis is freed. He noted that there’s a great sense of fear among many leaders ever since January, when a body guard killed a liberal Pakistani governor because the politician wanted to reform harsh laws that impose the death sentence for insulting Islam.

The official also said that Mr. Kerry, the chairman of the 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 Mr. 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 said the U.S. on Thursday “will present a petition to the court to certify that [Mr. Davis] has diplomatic immunity and that he should be released.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Crowley also voiced concern over the fact that the courts were involved, noting that the Vienna Convention regarding diplomats’ status clearly states, “this is not a matter for local courts to decide.”

There has also been controversy in Pakistan over the fact that Mr. Davis was armed. A senior U.S. official has told the Associated Press that Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.

The U.S. Embassy says Mr. 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 Mr. Davis‘ assignment more than a year ago.

After the shootings in Lahore, Mr. Davis called for backup. The American car rushing to the scene hit a third Pakistani, a bystander, who later died.

Mr. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said Monday that U.S. Embassy staff were in the vehicle. Pakistani police have said they want to question the car’s driver and passengers as well, though it is highly unlikely those staffers — especially if U.S. citizens — are still in Pakistan.

Associated Press writers Nahal Toosi in Islamabad and Matthew Pennington in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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