Pakistan Reportedly Close to Freeing Detained American

February 16, 2011 - 5:36 AM

raymond davis

Supporters of Pakistani Islamist party Jamat-e-Islami call for the execution of Raymond Davis, a U.S. consulate employee suspected in a shooting, in Lahore, Pakistan, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

(CNSNews.com) – Pakistani media early Wednesday cited official sources as saying the government had decided late Tuesday night to hand over a detained American official who was on trial for murder, after President Obama added his voice to the administration’s calls for Pakistan to free him.

A private television channel said the foreign ministry had sent a letter to the interior ministry, confirming its view that Raymond Davis was a diplomat and therefore entitled to immunity under international convention.

Davis admits having shot dead two men on a Lahore street on January 27, saying he thought the armed men were intent on robbing him. He is currently due to appear again Thursday in a Lahore court, where a decision likely will be made on the immunity issue.

Pressing for his release, the administration has been applying pressure on Islamabad at ever more senior levels, culminating in Obama’s remarks during a press conference Tuesday.

In addition to sending a chill through bilateral relations, the Davis case is roiling Pakistani politics, exposing divisions in the ruling party as domestic pressure on the government not to give in to U.S. demands continues to build.

The episode has stoked religious and nationalist fervor in Pakistan, and an influential Islamist organization vowed Tuesday to continue public protests against the government and U.S. diplomatic missions until Davis was hanged.

Officials have been sending mixed messages for days, and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said during a visit to Kuwait Tuesday that the Pakistani court alone would decide Davis’ fate.

A day earlier, the spokesperson for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Fauzia Wahab, told reporters in Karachi that Davis does indeed enjoy diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention, as the U.S. has consistently maintained.

Her words unleashed a furor, and President Asif Ali Zardari’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar, in a statement posted on the president’s Web site, said Wahab’s position was neither government nor PPP policy.

In further fallout, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who had taken much of the heat from Washington over Davis’ arrest, lost his post in a cabinet reshuffle late last week, a move widely reported to have been directly linked to his handling of the damaging affair.

A leading Pakistani journalist, Mohammad Malick, described a meeting at the presidency at which Qureshi had reportedly come under pressure from the president, prime minister and senior ministers to change his stance on Davis’ immunity.

Malick wrote that Qureshi had “flatly refused and even said that if need be, he’d rather resign than become an accessory to multiple murder.”

Following Qureshi’s departure and amid signs of a softening in the government’s stance, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Azam Tariq, told the French news agency AFP the group would target the country’s leaders if Davis was set free.

“We demand that the Pakistani government hang Raymond Davis or otherwise hand him over to us,” Tariq was quoted as saying. “We will decide his fate.”

Munawar Hasan, leader of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), told a rally in Lahore Tuesday that protestors would this weekend launch a “caravan” leading to a sit-in at the site of the shooting and a “blockade” of the U.S. Consulate in Lahore.

Hasan told the gathering that anyone who sides with the U.S. over the Davis case was a traitor to Pakistan, and called for a severing of ties with Washington, according to a statement released by JI.

Another JI leader, Secretary-General Liaquat Baloch, declared during the protest that if the country’s leaders freed Davis, they would be “swept away by the flood of the Pakistani people.”

Bahukutumbi Raman, a regional security analyst and former Indian counterterrorism official, warned on the possibility of a “mass uprising” in Pakistan over the issue of ties with the U.S.

“In Pakistan, large sections of the population – including the youth – are showing signs of getting fed up with the way they think the U.S. has been treating their country,” said Raman, who criticized the State Department’s handling of the case.

Raman said the use of pilotless drones to target terror suspects along the border with Afghanistan has stoked sporadic anti-U.S. sentiment over time, but it has been restricted to the tribal areas.

In contrast, “the anger over the Davis case has been in the whole of Pakistan. The elite as well as the common people, the religious as well as the liberal sections of the population are resentful of the manner in which they see the U.S. as dictating terms to their government.”