Kim Sengupta: Diplomatic immunity rules have many interpretations

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The Independent Online

The Pakistani authorities claim that Raymond Davis is not a bona fide American diplomat and thus ineligible for diplomatic immunity. In Washington, the State Department spokesman PJ Crowley insisted: "We're talking about a US diplomat.

He is a member of the US embassy's technical administrative staff and therefore entitled to full criminal immunity. He cannot be lawfully arrested or detained under the Vienna Convention."

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was enshrined in international law in 1961. By definition, a diplomat enters another country under safe-conduct, and an unofficial form of immunity for foreign emissaries has been in use in various forms for a much longer period.

But, as the current case in Lahore shows, the process remains open to differing interpretations. Some governments may waive the immunity for members of its legation when they are thought to have committed purely criminal acts; at times agreements are made bilaterally to deport the suspect so that they can be tried in their own country.

This is not the first time that attempts have been made to block a prosecution on grounds of diplomatic immunity. In 1984 Yvonne Fletcher, a policewoman, was killed by gunfire from the Libyan embassy in London. After an 11-day siege the personnel inside were allowed to fly out to Tripoli. Libya refused to waive immunity for them and denied that any firing had come from the embassy, but 15 years later admitted responsibility and paid compensation to WPC Fletcher's family.

The Foreign Office in London and the State Department in Washington reviewed their obligations under the Vienna Convention after her death, but both states decided to adhere to the law.

In 2004 Christopher Van Goethem, a US Marine, was involved in a car crash in Bucharest which killed a popular musician, Teo Peter. Van Goethem refused to give a blood sample to police and left the country. The Romanian authorities asked the US to waive immunity, but the request was refused. Van Goethem later faced a court martial, where he was acquitted of manslaughter, but convicted of obstructing justice and making false statements.

In 2001 a Russian diplomat, Andrei Knyazev, was arrested in Canada after allegedly driving his car into two pedestrians and killing them. Russia refused a Canadian request for immunity to be waived, but he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter back in Russia and jailed for four years.