ISLAMABAD: After three days of adopting a measured approach, the US Embassy has come out and demanded in absolute terms the release of an official involved in a shootout in Lahore.
However, the Foreign Office does not seem to be convinced of the official’s diplomatic status.
The embassy has stated that Raymond Davis, an official attached to the US consulate in Lahore who gunned down two men at Qurtaba Chowk on Thursday in apparent self-defence, enjoys diplomatic immunity under international law, and cannot be tried in Pakistan.
The embassy has also said that Davis holds a diplomatic passport – which initial reports suggested he didn’t – with a visa valid till June 2012, and therefore should be released immediately.
Initially, the US missions in Pakistan were not confirming the diplomatic status of Davis, who has been given on a six-day remand to the Punjab police by a Lahore magistrate. A one-line statement immediately following the incident had only regretted that the incident resulted in the loss of life.
Saturday’s statement, however, defended Davis’ act saying: “The diplomat had every reason to believe that the armed men meant him bodily harm. Minutes earlier, the two men, who had criminal backgrounds, had robbed money and valuables at gunpoint from a Pakistani citizen in the same area.”
In fact, the statement puts the onus of the confusion on the Pakistani authorities.
It said that the local police and senior authorities failed to observe their legal obligation to verify his status with either the US Consulate General in Lahore or the US embassy in Islamabad, adding that the arrest and subsequent remand of Davis is a violation of international norms.
However, the press statement did not mention the portfolio of Davis nor explained the nature of the job he is assigned in Pakistan.
Doubts in the Foreign Office
“The Punjab police are handling the investigation and its report is awaited,” Abdul Basit, the spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs, remarked when contacted in order to confirm the status of Davis – also pointing out that the matter is before a court of law. “For the above reasons, the foreign ministry has no substantive comments to offer,” he said.
However, other Foreign Office officials, speaking off the record, have expressed doubts about the authenticity of Davis’ diplomatic status, saying that he was not enrolled with their protocol section, which is known as P-2.
They also pointed out that Davis had not presented his diplomatic credentials at the time of his arrest.
Diplomats in Pakistan were puzzled by the incident, questioning why it took three days for the US embassy to act on Davis’ behalf. “Why did they not act as soon as the incident was reported? Was it because he did not have diplomatic papers at all?” one diplomat said, adding that a diplomat was supposed to carry relevent documents on his person at all times to preempt all possibilities.
They also raised eyebrows on his handiness with firearms – saying that no ordinary diplomat was “trained to fire in such a manner exhibited by Davis”.
Ambassador contacts Sharif
With the Punjab government handling the case, US Ambassador Cameron Munter rang up Nawaz Sharif the chief of the province’s ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), according to a statement by the party.
Expressing grief over the death of three Pakistanis in the incident, Ambassador Munter sought the custody of Davis. Sharif, however, was said to have told the ambassador that the matter was for the court to decide now.
The military weighs in
Highlighting the seriousness of the case for the government, military officials are learnt to have advised the government not to take the matter lightly. They said that political cost of his release would be “stupendous”.
Interestingly, one military official is being said to have even suggested that the case could be “used for urging the United States government to dismiss the case filed against the director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)”, which is being heard by a court in New York.
The National Assembly standing committee on interior has directed the secretary of the ministry of foreign affairs to ask the US Consulate Lahore to send a representative to attend a meeting that will take up the issue, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP).
The news agency, quoting documents in its possession, said that the meeting will be held on Jan 31 in parliament house. The chairman of the standing committee, MNA Abdul Qadir, will preside over the meeting. Interior Minister Rehman Malik and other officials of the concerned of ministry have also been asked to attend the meeting.
Also summoned to the meeting are the Inspector General Police Punjab and the Capital City Police Officer Lahore.
The heirs of the two men killed by the US official’s fire have also been invited to attend.
A petition has been filed in the Lahore High Court seeking suo motu notice by the chief justice on the issue of Davis’ status.
Barrister Javed Iqbal Jaafri has filed an application on Saturday requesting that the official’s status should not be put out of the court’s jurisdiction without its approval. The applicant also submitted that Davis should be tried under Pakistani law and no ‘special favours’ be granted by the government.
WITH REPORTING BY RANA TANVEER IN LAHORE
Published in The Express Tribune, January 30th, 2011.