LAHORE, Pakistan – A Pakistani trial court determined Thursday that an American CIA contractor does not have diplomatic immunity in the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis but held off on charging him with murder, said a lawyer involved in the case.
The decision is at least a temporary blow to Washington, which insists the man, Raymond Allen Davis, is considered a diplomat and was acting in self-defense against robbers. But the issue of immunity is also being considered by the Lahore High Court, which could override the trial court's decision.
The case has severely strained the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, whose alliance is considered a critical part of ending the war in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government, fearful of public backlash, has yet to make a determination on whether Davis has immunity and said the matter is up to courts.
Davis appeared for the first time with defense counsel during Thursday's hearing, said Asad Manzoor Butt, a lawyer representing victims in the case. Along with the two men Davis shot, a third Pakistani was killed when struck by a U.S. car rushing to aid the American on Jan. 27 in the eastern city of Lahore.
Davis' lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment. Nor could the U.S. Embassy.
The next trial court hearing is set for March 8, while the Lahore High Court is expected to take up the immunity case again on March 14.
U.S. officials initially described Davis as a consulate or embassy employee, but have since said on condition of anonymity that he was doing security work in Pakistan as a contractor for the CIA. They have said this does not make any difference to his right to diplomatic immunity.
Last month, President Barack Obama referred to him as "our diplomat" and demanded he be freed.
Some members of Congress are threatening to cut off development funds to Pakistan if Davis is kept much longer in jail. Obama, seeking to enlist Pakistan's support in helping it fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, has authorized the release of $7.5 billion in aid over five years to shore up the country.
The case also has inflamed tensions between the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Both agencies do not speak to the media in detail about their operations, but it appears the ISI is either angry at the CIA for carrying out activities in the country without its knowledge, or embarrassed at being caught out at allowing them to operate apparently independently.