ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's former foreign minister said yesterday that legal advisers told him an American detained for fatally shooting two Pakistanis did not qualify for blanket diplomatic immunity as Washington maintains.
Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who stepped down earlier this month during a cabinet shake-up but retains influence, reiterated this stance after a meeting with Senator John Kerry, chair of the US Senate foreign relations committee. His comments are an indication that the US politician may have a rocky time convincing Pakistan to free 36-year-old Raymond Davis.
It also signalled there have been internal divisions within the Pakistani government over how to handle a case that has severely strained relations with the US. The partnership is considered key to ending the war in Afghanistan.
The US says Mr Davis is an embassy staffer who shot two Pakistanis in self-defence as they tried to rob him on January 27, and that his detention is illegal under international agreements covering diplomats. Pakistani leaders - fearful of stoking more outrage in a public already rife with anti-US sentiment - have said the matter is up to the courts to decide.
A Pakistani federal official said on Tuesday that the government would tell a court later this week that most of its legal experts had decided that Mr Davis is immune from prosecution. Mr Qureshi, however, told a news conference that if he is summoned, he will testify that his advisers informed him Mr Davis may not have full immunity.
"God willing, I will side with the truth," he said. "I will never disappoint the nation."
It was not immediately clear if saying that Mr Davis does not qualify for "blanket" immunity means he does not qualify at all for protection from prosecution in this particular case. The US Embassy insists that because Mr Davis was part of its "administrative and technical staff" he has blanket immunity.
Mr Qureshi was the most prominent member of the Pakistani cabinet to not be reappointed to his old post after the quick dissolution and re-creation of the prime minister's circle of advisers last week. He said he kept quiet on the Davis case earlier upon instructions from the leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, but implied that his stance on the matter had cost him his job. A new foreign minister has not yet been appointed.
Upon arriving in Pakistan late on Tuesday, Mr Kerry, a Democrat, reached out to the government and the people, promising a US criminal investigation into the shooting if Mr Davis was released. He expressed regret over the loss of lives and acknowledged that the deaths need to be examined.
"It is customary in an incident like this for our government to conduct a criminal investigation. That is our law. And I can give you the full assurance of our government today that that will take place," Mr Kerry told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore, where the shootings occurred.
The senator met Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani after seeing Mr Qureshi yesterday. He was to see President Asif Ali Zardari and the army chief, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, as well. His meeting with Mr Qureshi indicated he believed the former foreign minister, a major figure in the ruling party, still has influence.
President Barack Obama also insisted on Tuesday that Mr Davis be freed, saying the principle of diplomatic immunity must be upheld.
"If it starts being fair game on our ambassadors around the world, including in dangerous places where we may have differences with those governments, that's untenable," Mr Obama said at a news conference, his first public remarks on the case. "It means they can't do their job. And that's why we respect these conventions and every country should as well."
Part of the confusion over Mr Davis's status lies in his background. The administration insists he was part of the embassy's "administrative and technical staff", which means he might have been involved with security, but Pakistani media have focused on him being a former special forces soldier who runs an American "protective services" company with his wife.
Although the US says he is an embassy staffer, he apparently had been attached for a while to the consulate in Lahore, further adding to the confusion about his status, since consulate employees do not always get the same level of diplomatic protection as embassy staff.
The Associated Press also obtained a photocopy of an ID and a salary document that Mr Davis apparently gave Pakistani authorities, showing that he was scheduled to be paid US$200,000 (Dh735,000) from September 21, 2010, until September 20, 2011, for "overseas protective sec. svcs.", training, administration work and insurance and travel expenses.
The ID card identifies Mr Davis as a Defence Department contractor.