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Pakistan accuses U.S. Consulate staffer of ‘coldblooded murder’

The fatal shooting of two Pakistani men by a U.S. Consulate employee last month was “coldblooded murder” and not self-defense, police investigators said Friday, escalating a diplomatic crisis between the United States and an important ally in its fight against terrorism.

With law enforcement authorities set on a course to try Raymond Davis on murder charges, the 36-year-old American’s case may rest on his claim of diplomatic immunity, an assertion that so far the Pakistani federal government has avoided affirming.

President Asif Ali Zardari’s government risks igniting unrest if it grants Davis immunity and allows his release. Hard-line clerics and Islamist parties have promised to organize large demonstrations if Davis is freed.

But Davis’ continued incarceration has incensed the Obama administration, which has signaled that diplomacy between the two countries could be hindered by the row. In addition, members of Congress have suggested that billions of dollars in economic and military aid pledged to Pakistan could be suspended.

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At stake is Washington’s relationship with an important but difficult ally that it needs in its effort to root out Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders from strongholds in Pakistan’s volatile northwest, and to help bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, now in its 10th year.

However, many Pakistanis have a negative image of the United States, seeing it as an arrogant superpower bent on exploiting their country to suit its own interests. The Jan. 27 shooting by Davis has given anti-U.S. leaders and commentators in Pakistan another cause with which to stoke anti-American sentiments.

Davis, described by U.S. authorities as a member of the U.S. Consulate staff in Lahore, was driving on a busy road when he encountered two men on a motorcycle. Davis has told police the men tried to rob him, and that one of them pointed a pistol at him. Police have confirmed that both men were armed with handguns.

Davis has acknowledged shooting the men, but said he did so in self-defense.

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Lahore Police Chief Aslam Tareen said Friday that the two men were carrying handguns and cartridges were found in the firearms’ magazines but not in either gun’s chamber. Moreover, Tareen said, one of the men was fleeing as Davis began firing and was shot in the back.

“We have proved this was a coldblooded murder,” Tareen said at a news conference in Lahore. “The person is running away, so he shot them to be sure they were killed. They were not given any chance for survival. That’s why we can’t take it as self-defense.”

Though Tareen said the investigation was essentially complete, several questions remain unanswered. Davis has said that one of the men pointed a pistol at him, and though investigators have not found any witnesses to substantiate that assertion, neither have they found any that ruled it out.

Also unclear is whether Davis was indeed the victim of a robbery attempt. Police officials say no witnesses have turned up to corroborate Davis’ statement that he was being robbed. Punjab police officials who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the case said both of the slain men were known to police as being members of a robbery gang. Cellphones in their possession had been stolen, police officials said.

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But Carmela Conroy, the U.S. consul-general in Lahore, said witnesses have corroborated Davis’ version of what happened. She added that “these men were found with stolen property, and as police stated today, a loaded gun. We regret that authorities did not consider these eyewitness accounts and physical evidence when they stated that this was not a case of self-defense.”

On Friday, a Lahore judge ordered that Davis be held for 14 more days and that he be transferred from a police lockup to a jail to await his next court hearing, scheduled for Feb. 25.

The judge also referred Davis’ claim of diplomatic immunity to the Lahore High Court, an appellate panel that will take up the issue Thursday. The U.S. Embassy has stated repeatedly that, as a member of the Lahore consulate’s “technical and administrative staff,” Davis enjoys immunity from prosecution. Embassy officials, however, have declined to clarify exactly what his assignment was in Pakistan.

Pakistani police say the Lahore consulate has also refused to turn over the driver of an SUV that struck and killed a bystander while rushing to the scene of the shooting.

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com


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