US official accused of murder is barred from leaving Pakistan

A court in Lahore has ordered the Pakistani government not to release an American official arrested over a double shooting in the city and said that his name should be added to the "exit control list" so that he cannot leave the country.

In the latest twist to an incident that has become a stand-off between America and a country it considers a vital regional ally, the Lahore High Court gave the authorities in Islamabad 15 days to determine whether or not the US citizen had diplomatic immunity. Until then, the court said, Raymond Davis will remain in custody.

"I am restraining him [from being handed over to US authorities]," said the court's chief justice, Ijaz Ahmed Chaudhry. "Whether he has or does not have [diplomatic] immunity will be decided by the court."

Mr Davis, 36, an employee at the US consulate in Lahore, was arrested last week after an incident in which he allegedly shot dead two armed Pakistani men on a motorbike who he said were intending to rob him. A third Pakistani citizen was killed when another vehicle from the consulate answered a call for assistance from Mr Davis and rushed to the scene, hitting several pedestrians.

The US embassy in Islamabad has said that Mr Davis, who served as a "technical adviser" at the consulate, is a diplomat who has immunity from prosecution. The embassy has demanded that the Pakistani authorities release him. "He cannot be lawfully arrested or detained in accordance with the Vienna Convention," the US state department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters in Washington this week.

The Pakistani authorities, cautious of being seen to give in to American pressure and antagonising public opinion, seem reluctant to do so, saying it is important that the matter be decided by the courts. When President Asif Ali Zardari was asked about the issue this week by a delegation of US Congressmen, he is said to have replied: "It would be prudent to wait for the legal course to be completed."

The killings in Lahore sparked a fresh wave of anti-Americanism in Pakistan and the media has been quick to question Mr Davis's version of events. While there are those who are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt after it emerged that the two people he killed had been carrying weapons, questions remain about his role at the embassy and the reason why the US authorities will not confirm his identity.

The US television network ABC has reported that Mr Davis is a private security officer with experience in the US special forces. What appears certain is that Mr Davis is not a regular diplomat; a doctor who made post-mortem examinations on the men who were shot said they were hit multiple times in the head, back, arm, chest, kidney and abdomen. Mr Davis was apparently firing through the windscreen of his vehicle at the time.

There are clear signs that no politician or official wants to be seen to making a decision that will decide the fate of Mr Davis and they may instead be waiting for a face-saving development to emerge. The issue may be further complicated by the fact that the provincial authorities in Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital, are controlled by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, headed by Nawaz Sharif.

They have little reason to make things easy for the federal government.

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