By Masroor Gilani
AFP | March 16, 2011
LAHORE, Pakistan — A Pakistan court on Wednesday freed a CIA contractor accused of double murder after $2 million in blood money was paid to the families of the dead, ending a damaging row with the United States.
Raymond Davis, remanded in jail since he shot dead two men in Lahore on January 27, said he acted in self-defence and has been backed by US authorities, who said he was an embassy employee with full diplomatic immunity.
The incident sparked protests across the country and ruptured fragile ties between the United States and the government in Islamabad, which had been under domestic pressure to stand up to its superpower ally and try Davis for murder. But following a lengthy court hearing on Wednesday at the Lahore jail where Davis was detained, and where a media blackout was imposed, Punjab provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah confirmed that the US gunman had been freed.
"He has been released from jail. Now it is up to him. He can go wherever he wants," Sanaullah told private Geo television.
The minister said the case had been settled with blood money, or "diyat" -- a provision commonly used under Pakistani and Islamic sharia law in which compensation can be paid to relatives of those killed to secure a pardon.
"The family members of the slain men appeared in the court and independently verified they had pardoned him," said Sanaullah.
Raja Irshad, a lawyer for the families of the two dead men, said a total of 200 million Pakistani rupees (2.35 million dollars) was paid as compensation. That was confirmed by public prosecutor Abdul Samad.
The wife of one of the two men committed suicide in the wake of her husband's killing.
Police investigator Muneer Ahmed told AFP that the deal had been done by "mutual agreement" but opposition politicians cried foul and said the government had caved in to US coercion in making the deal. US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, who had previously said only that Davis had diplomatic immunity, issued a public apology over the killing following his release and thanked the families for agreeing to compensation.
"I am grateful for their (the families') generosity. I wish to express, once again, my regret for the incident and my sorrow at the suffering it caused," said Munter in an emailed statement. "I wish to express my respect for Pakistan and its people, and my thanks for their commitment to building our relationship, to everyone's benefit."
The Davis case had sparked angry protests by religious groups who had called for the American to be hanged for double murder. Small demonstrations broke out in southern Karachi city and Islamabad after news of the deal broke, with a few dozen protesters chanting anti-American slogans.
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan decried the blood-money deal as a "reprehensible act" and said it would "further escalate extremism in the country".
"The deal has been arranged under coercion amid US pressure," he told Geo television.
Revelations that Davis was a CIA contractor heaped pressure on Pakistan's embattled government and further ramped up burning public mistrust of Washington, damaging shaky relations between the two wary allies. Pakistani media has been rife with claims that a spy row between the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency was lingering behind the Davis case, fuelling widespread rumours of conspiracy in the nuclear nation.
Police have said they recovered a Glock pistol, four loaded magazines, a GPS navigation system and a small telescope from Davis' car after the shooting in a busy Lahore street.
US authorities said Davis was protected by full diplomatic immunity, a claim refuted by the Pakistan government, and a decision on his status was on Monday deferred by the Lahore high court for criminal judges to decide.
A third Pakistani was struck down and killed by a US diplomatic vehicle that raced to Davis' assistance in the incident.
US officials denied Pakistan access to the vehicle and the occupants are widely believed to have left the country.
The family of the third man have not received any blood money payment, lawyer Irshad said.
The United States postponed a round of high-level talks with Afghanistan and Pakistan following earlier failed attempts to get Davis out, and US lawmakers had threatened to cut payments to Pakistan until he was freed.