x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Lahore court delays hearing of American who shot two Pakistanis

Hearing into the diplomatic immunity of US consular employee Raymond Davis, who killed two men he said were attempting to rob him, is delayed until next month.

LAHORE // A Pakistani court yesterday delayed until next month a hearing into the diplomatic immunity of an American who killed two local men, a case that has pushed ties between Islamabad and Washington towards breaking point.

The postponement to March 14 will likely be met with exasperation in Washington, where the Obama administration has urged Pakistan to free the consular employee Raymond Davis and avoid a precedent being set for trials of US officials abroad.

The High Court in the city of Lahore granted a government request to postpone the hearing on whether Mr Davis, a former special forces soldier who shot and killed two men on January 27, is protected by diplomatic immunity.

Mr Davis, who is assigned to the US Consulate in Lahore, has said he was acting in self-defence during an armed robbery in the city.

Yet the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, battling its own insurgency and struggling to hold together a fragile political coalition, is reluctant to ignite popular fury in a case that has galvanised anti-American sentiment.

Pakistani officials, in asking for a delay, may be trying to buy time so tensions can ebb and officials can work behind the scenes to broker a way out of their dilemma.

"Hang Raymond Davis," read a banner at the court compound.

The delay may embolden US politicians threatening to reconsider billions of dollars in US aid that Pakistan needs to equip its military, rebuild after last year's punishing floods and tackle rampant poverty.

Many US officials believe generous aid has not brought them Pakistan's full co-operation in cracking down on Taliban and al Qa'eda militants hiding out along the Afghan border.

Islamabad may ask US officials to consider approaching relatives of the men Mr Davis killed "and try and sort out a deal with them", said the political analyst Ejaz Haider.

There is mounting speculation the United States might back payment of compensation, or blood money, as laid out under Pakistani law, but the United States might be loath to support payment in what it sees as a case of self-defence.

Waseem Shamshad, a brother of one of the men who were killed, ruled out the possibility of striking any deal with the US government or Mr Davis. "We stand by our position that there is no possibility of patching it up with them," he said.

Pakistan cannot ignore potentially explosive emotions over the shooting incident, which also resulted in the death of a third man run over by a US vehicle that came to Mr Davis's rescue.

One of the dead men's widows committed suicide, further stoking passions in a nation already indignant about escalating strikes by US unmanned drones in the north-west.

Pakistan's al Qa'eda-linked Taliban has warned the government it will punish any move to free Mr Davis.

While US officials have said the justice department will conduct a criminal investigation of its own, it is unclear whether such a probe would lead to a trial.

Adding to the confusion is the murkiness over Mr Davis's role at the US consulate. While embassy officials have said Mr Davis was part of the consulate's administrative and technical staff, many locals have accused Mr Davis of being a spy.

* Reuters