LAHORE, Pakistan — The fatal shooting of two Pakistani men by a U.S. Embassy official last month was "cold-blooded murder" and not self-defense, police investigators in Pakistan's second largest city said Friday, escalating a diplomatic crisis that threatens to rupture relations between the U.S. and a vital ally in the war on terror.
With Pakistani law enforcement authorities set on a course to try Raymond Davis on murder charges, the 36-year-old American's best hope now lies with his claim of diplomatic immunity -- an assertion that so far the federal government has avoided affirming.
Already perceived by Pakistanis as weak and corrupt, the government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, risks igniting massive waves of unrest if it grants Davis immunity and allows his release. Hardline clerics and Islamist religious parties have promised to organize throngs of demonstrators if Davis is freed, and Zardari's government may not be able to survive a major uprising.
But Davis' continued incarceration has incensed the Obama administration, which has signaled to Pakistani authorities that diplomatic dialogue between the two countries could be curbed by the ongoing row. Davis has spent 16 days in custody as of Friday, and a judge has ordered him detained for 14 more days while prosecutors build a case.
Members of Congress have also suggested that billions of dollars in economic and military aid that the U.S. has pledged to Pakistan could be suspended.
At stake is Washington's relationship with an important but difficult ally that the U.S. needs to help root out Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders from their strongholds in the country's volatile northwest, and to help bring an end to the war against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, now in its 10th year.
Progress in the relationship has been impeded by the negative image many Pakistanis have of the U.S., which sees America as an arrogant superpower bent on exploiting their country to suit Washington's interests. The Jan. 27 shooting of two Pakistani men by Davis gave anti-U.S. leaders and commentators in Pakistan another cause with which to stoke more anti-American fervor.
Davis, described by U.S. authorities as a member of the U.S. Embassy staff, was driving in through a heavily congested Lahore avenue when he encountered two Pakistani men on a motorcycle. Davis has told police the men were trying 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.
However, Pakistani investigators have concluded that Davis' claim is baseless, said Lahore police chief Aslam Tareen. The two men were in possession of handguns and bullets were found in the firearms' magazines, but neither of them had a bullet in the chamber of their pistols, Tareen said. Moreover, after Davis began firing and one man darted down the street to flee, Davis shot him in the back, according to the police chief.
"We have proved this was a cold-blooded murder," Tareen said at a press 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 is essentially complete, several questions remain. Davis has claimed that one of the men pointed a pistol at him, and while investigators have not found any witnesses to substantiate that assertion, they also haven't found any that have outright ruled it out.
Also unclear is whether Davis was the victim of a robbery attempt. Police officials say no witnesses have turned up who corroborate Davis' claim that he was being robbed. However, Punjab police officials who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the case said both of the men Davis shot dead were known to police as being members of a robbery gang. Cell phones that they had when they were shot turned out to be stolen, police officials said.
On Monday morning, a Lahore judge ordered that Davis be held for another 14 days and that he be transferred from a police lock-up to a jail to await his next court hearing, scheduled for Feb. 25. Authorities said that given the nature of the case, Davis will be separated from other prisoners for his own safety.
The judge also referred Davis' claim of diplomatic immunity to the Lahore High Court, an appellate panel that will take up the issue Feb. 17. The U.S. Embassy has stated repeatedly that as a member of the embassy's "technical and administrative staff," Davis enjoys immunity from prosecution. Embassy officials, however, have declined to clarify exactly what his assignment was in Pakistan.
Tareen also said police continue to seek the driver of an SUV from the American consulate in Lahore, who rushed to the scene of the shooting after Davis had called him. Police say that driver drove the wrong way down a Lahore street and struck and killed a bystander on a motorcycle. Pakistani police say the Lahore consulate has refused to turn over the driver to authorities.