A CIA contractor charged with murdering two Pakistani men was freed Wednesday after the victims' families pardoned him and accepted financial compensation. The resolution was viewed by many analysts as the best option to salve strained relations between the U.S. and Pakistan while minimizing the potential for a volatile reaction from Pakistanis who wanted the American tried and convicted.
Just hours after Lahore trial court judge Muhammad Yousaf Ojla announced Raymond Davis' formal indictment on murder charges, the 36-year-old American was on a plane headed out of the country.
Punjab provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said he was freed after the families of the slain men decided to accept diyat, or "blood money," under an Islamic tradition that permits a killer to win a pardon from the heirs of a victim by paying compensation.
Sanaullah said family members of the men, Faizan Haider and Fahim Shamshad, appeared in court after the indictment was handed down and told Ojla they had agreed to pardon Davis. With that decision, the judge announced the acquittal and paved the way for Davis' swift release.
"They confirmed in court that they forgave Davis after receiving diyat," Sanaullah said. "This right to forgive is given to them by Sharia [Islamic law] and Pakistani law, and neither you nor I nor the court can snatch this right from them. They used their right, and the court released him."
The terms of the compensation had not been announced as of Wednesday evening. A Pakistani official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the families each received $1.1 million.
However, speaking in Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States did not pay any compensation to secure Davis' release, the Associated Press reported. A U.S. official who asked not to be named said there was no formal quid pro quo arrangement that paved the way for Davis' release. The official would not elaborate.
Relatives and neighbors say both families have locked up their homes and left, and their whereabouts are unknown. A senior police official who asked not to be named said Pakistani authorities assisted in helping the families quietly leave "to avoid the wrath of the public, particularly from the religious parties."
Officials at the U.S. Consulate in the eastern city of Lahore were present at Wednesday's court hearing, and left with Davis after he was released, Sanaullah said. Officials with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
However, in a prepared statement, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter confirmed that the families of the men had pardoned Davis and said he was "grateful for their generosity." Munter did not reveal how much compensation was given, but he said that the U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation of the Jan. 27 shootings in Lahore.
Davis and U.S. officials have maintained that the CIA contractor and former Special Forces soldier acted in self-defense. Davis says he was in his car in heavy traffic when the two men on a motorcycle approached and attempted to rob him. One of them brandished a handgun, he said.
Davis fired his Glock 9-millimeter handgun at the men, first through the windshield of his car and then as he stepped outside. Haider and Shamshad had five gunshot wounds each.
Police discounted Davis' claim of self-defense, saying several of the bullet wounds were in the men's backs and the gun one had was loaded but did not have a bullet in the chamber.
Another U.S. employee, rushing to Davis' aid in an embassy vehicle, struck and killed a motorcyclist. Pakistani authorities believe the driver has returned to the United States.
The case quickly became one of the trickiest tests for the already tenuous relationship between the two nations. Washington needs Pakistan's assistance to uproot Al Qaeda and the Taliban from strongholds in the volatile northwest and to help broker an end to nine years of war against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
The United States had repeatedly demanded Davis' release, citing the Vienna Convention of 1961 that gives immunity from criminal prosecution to all diplomats. Washington argued that it had notified Pakistani officials in January 2010 of Davis' role as "administrative and technical staff" member assigned to the U.S. Embassy, a status that afforded him diplomatic immunity under the convention.
However, Pakistan's embattled civilian government, viewed by many Pakistanis as a puppet of the U.S., feared unrest if Davis were to be freed on the grounds of immunity.
What remains to be seen is whether Pakistan's Islamist hard-line clerics and religious parties will try to mobilize large protests over Davis' release. Sporadic protests over the case broke out late Wednesday in Karachi and Lahore.
"Whether there will be a popular reaction will depend on how the parties that are whipping it up react," said Zafar Hilaly, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.
"But don't forget, there's a gulf between the elite and the rest of the population, and this gulf is growing. So it's difficult to say how deep the resentment will be and how widespread it will be."
Special correspondent Shahnawaz Khan in Lahore and Times staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.