By Karin Brulliard and Aoun Sahi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 5:00 PM
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A Pakistani court on Thursday gave the central government three more weeks to determine whether a U.S. official facing murder charges qualifies for diplomatic immunity. The ruling prolongs a diplomatic crisis threatening the two nations' counterterrorism alliance.
The decision in the high court in the eastern city of Lahore came two days after Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) arrived in Pakistan to ramp up pressure by the United States for the release of the official, Raymond A. Davis.
Kerry capped his visit with a statement that he expected a resolution "in the next few days." That timeline was scuttled when attorneys for the Pakistani government, which had indicated that it would support Davis's immunity claim at the Thursday hearing, said they needed more time to prepare a position.
The dispute over Davis, a former Special Forces soldier who U.S. officials say was an embassy staff member, has deeply rattled the strategic relationship between Pakistan and the United States. The White House has postponed a meeting of Afghan, Pakistani and American officials planned for next week in Washington, and Congress is threatening cuts in funding to Pakistan, the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. economic and military aid.
But Pakistan's unpopular civilian government is also under enormous pressure - from an intensely anti-American public, religious parties and the political opposition - not to free Davis.
Davis has said that he acted in self-defense when he fatally shot two Pakistanis on Jan. 27, an assertion rejected by police. Pakistani media have questioned why Davis was armed and what his duties were in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, said in a statement Thursday that the United States was "disappointed" that the government did not certify immunity for Davis.
Echoing Kerry, Munter apologized for the "tragic" incident in Lahore, in which a third, uninvolved man was also killed after being hit by a U.S. consulate vehicle that was coming to Davis's rescue.
The United States has made conflicting statements about Davis's job, and an attorney for the Punjab provincial government, Khawaja Haris Ahmed, pointed to those discrepancies in court Thursday to argue that Davis does not have immunity.
In a court filing, the provincial government noted that the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad had informed Pakistan's Foreign Ministry on the day of the shootings that Davis was an employee of the U.S. Consulate General in Lahore. On Feb. 3, the embassy called Davis a member of its "technical and administrative" staff, the filing said.
Consular staff members are covered by the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, not the 1961 convention that applies to embassy staff members, according to the filing. The 1963 convention grants fewer privileges and would not shield Davis from prosecution, Ahmed said.
Foreign Ministry officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, made the same argument this week, but they indicated that Davis might be released anyway to avoid a breakdown in relations with the United States.
Former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who lost his job in a recent cabinet reshuffle, said this week that he did not think Davis qualified for "blanket immunity."
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for March 14.
Sahi, a special correspondent, reported from Lahore.