LAHORE, Pakistan – A Pakistani court said Thursday it would proceed with the trial of an American CIA contractor arrested for shooting dead two Pakistanis, but held off on charging him, lawyers for both sides said. The court also said there was no evidence that Raymond Allen Davis had diplomatic immunity as his lawyers and Washington insist, they said.
The decision was a blow to Washington, which says Raymond Allen Davis is considered a diplomat and has protected status from prosecution. The immunity issue, however, is still being considered by the Lahore High Court, which could override Thursday's finding by the trial court.
The case has severely strained the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, whose alliance is considered a critical part of ending the war in Afghanistan. Washington insists Davis was acting in self-defense against robbers. The Pakistani government, fearful of public backlash, has yet to make a determination on whether Davis has immunity and said the matter is up to the courts.
Davis appeared for the first time with defense counsel during Thursday's hearing.
"The court did not stop the trial on the basis of immunity," said his attorney, Zahid Bokhari, after the morning proceeding.
Asad Manzoor Butt, a lawyer representing victims in the case, said the next trial court hearing was set for March 8. The Lahore High Court is expected to take up the immunity question again on March 14.
U.S. officials initially described Davis as a consulate or embassy employee, but have since said on condition of anonymity that he was doing security work in Pakistan as a contractor for the CIA. They have said this does not make any difference to his right to diplomatic immunity.
Last month, President Barack Obama referred to him as "our diplomat" and demanded he be freed.
Along with the two men Davis shot, a third Pakistani was killed when struck by a U.S. car rushing to aid the American on Jan. 27 in the eastern city of Lahore.
Some members of Congress are threatening to cut off development funds to Pakistan if Davis is kept much longer in jail. Obama, seeking to enlist Pakistan's support in helping it fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, has authorized the release of $7.5 billion in aid over five years to shore up the country.
The case also has inflamed tensions between the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Both agencies do not speak to the media in detail about their operations, but it appears the ISI is either angry at the CIA for carrying out activities in the country without its knowledge, or embarrassed at being caught out at allowing them to operate apparently independently.