LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistan on Friday put on trial an American CIA contractor charged with killing two Pakistanis despite U.S. demands for his release, complicating a case that is straining a relationship crucial to ending the war in Afghanistan.
Raymond Davis, a former U.S. special forces officer, says he acted in self-defense when he shot the men on a busy street in the eastern city of Lahore last month. He has been charged with double-murder and faces possible execution. Washington says he has diplomatic immunity and must be repatriated.
The killings, and Davis’ recently revealed CIA-links, have inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan, where Washington’s already-uneasy alliance with the government is seen as hegemony by many ordinary Pakistanis.
Conflicting accounts about the identity of the victims — Davis and a police report indicate they were armed robbers; Pakistani media and some officials portray them as innocent — have also given President Ali Asif Zardari’s unpopular government little choice but to go through the courts.
“He should be treated the same way he treated Pakistanis,” said Muzammil Mukhtar, a laborer in a factory near the jail. “We should not care about our relations with America. These have never been good.”
Davis’ trial was held inside Kot Lakhpat jail, where he has been detained since February 11 amid extremely tight security. Protesters have burned effigies of Davis and U.S. flags since details of the killings became public, sparking concerns about his safety.
U.S. Consul General General Carmela A. Conroy attended the trial, but reporters and families of other prisoners were not allowed inside.
The murder trial is the first of two legal cases involving Davis.
On March 14, a Lahore court will decide whether he enjoys diplomatic immunity, another contentious issue that Pakistan’s government has said must be decided legally, at the risk of possibly losing out on up to $3 billion a year in military and civilian U.S. aid.
“Davis case is not so simple as it is sometimes portrayed by some. It is a complex case involving issues in national and international law as well as grave sensitivities that cannot be wished away,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.
“The court has not only taken cognizance of it but also declared that it will decide on the immunity issue. We respect the court and will wait for its verdict.”
In addition to igniting a diplomatic standoff, Davis’ case has strained, but not broken, relations between the CIA and Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which did not know of Davis’ presence in the country.
CIA-ISI ties are essential to battling al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S. and other foreign forces are fighting an almost-decade-old war which has become increasingly bloodier over the past few months.
Relations between the spy agencies took a blow in December, when the CIA station chief in Islamabad was forced to leave the country after his name was published in a court filing over drone attacks. Davis’ case made matter worse.
“Post incident conduct of CIA has virtually put the partnership into question … it is hard to predict if the relationship will ever reach the level at which it was prior to the Davis episode,” the ISI said in a letter to the Wall Street Journal last week.
The United States says it holds Pakistan responsible for Davis’ safety, and prison sources say his cell is an area isolated from other prisoners and under constant surveillance and heavy guard.
There is some reason for worry in Pakistan, where rogue security forces have at times turned on government officials.
Last month, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot to death by one of his own guards. His killer became a hero for Islamist groups that opposed the governor’s moderate political views.