LAHORE, Pakistan – Inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Pakistani college student Gulraiz Iqbal is itching for a reason to take his disdain for President Asif Ali Zardari’s government to the streets.
If Pakistani authorities grant diplomatic immunity and release Raymond Davis, the American Embassy employee arrested for killing two Pakistani motorcyclists, Iqbal will have the cause he craves.
“We would organize students in Lahore and across the country, and create a movement that would turn into a revolution,” said Iqbal, 22, a small, wiry Pakistani who helps lead the Lahore student wing of an opposition party, Movement for Justice. “We’re inspired by the examples of Tunisia and Egypt because their leaders were agents for the U.S. We have the same situation here.”
Iqbal’s fist-shaking can’t be brushed aside, if only because his outrage over the Davis case is shared by much of the rest of the country. In a nation fractured along ethnic, sectarian and political fault lines, the case has congealed Pakistani society into a single, cohesive front against what many perceive to be an ideal illustration of American recklessness.
On Jan. 27, Davis, 36, fatally shot two men on a motorcycle in Lahore who he said were trying to rob him at gunpoint. Davis was arrested and told officials he acted in self-defense. But few in Pakistan believe his claim and many want him tried on murder charges, or worse.
Photos of protesters hoisting banners that read “Hang Raymond Davis!” appear every few days in Pakistani newspapers. Islamist parties capable of mobilizing thousands of demonstrators have vowed to rally against the government if Davis is freed.
The tumult sweeping through the Middle East could give demonstrators in Pakistan momentum that Zardari and his government would struggle to withstand, analysts say.
Zardari’s government has reeled from one crisis to the next since the ouster of military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2008. The Supreme Court has repeatedly sought Zardari’s prosecution on corruption charges leveled in Switzerland. Many Pakistanis harshly criticized his administration for failing to provide relief quickly enough to millions left homeless by last summer’s epic floods. The country’s economy continues to teeter on the brink of collapse.
If Davis is released without a trial, experts say, it could be the last straw. The U.S. was expected to argue its case for Davis’ immunity and release at a hearing at the Lahore High Court today. But the court early today delayed the hearing until March 14.
“The problem is that the government is so weak,” said Talat Masood, a security analyst and retired Pakistani general. “The government thinks that because of what’s happening in Egypt, the people need only an excuse – and this might be the one.”
As a result, the government has been reluctant to make a decision regarding diplomatic immunity for Davis.
Washington wants Islamabad to declare that Davis is shielded from prosecution by immunity granted by the Vienna Convention to all diplomats and embassy “technical and administrative staff.” U.S. officials have described Davis, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier, as an official with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, but they have declined to state what his job is.
Washington remains mindful of Pakistan’s important role in an eventual resolution to the war in Afghanistan and in maintaining pressure on al-Qaida and Taliban strongholds in the country’s volatile northwest. Pakistan desperately needs the steady stream of financial aid that the U.S. provides, but it cannot afford to allow the Davis affair to become a trigger for national unrest.
“The question is, when both countries have so much to lose, which one will stand down?” said Zafar Hilaly, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.
During a news conference in Washington on Tuesday, President Barack Obama called for Pakistan to respect diplomatic immunity for Davis.
Arriving in Lahore late Tuesday, Sen. John F. Kerry said the U.S. deeply regretted the deaths of the two Pakistani men and promised a Justice Department investigation into Davis’ actions.
“We cannot allow one incident to break apart a much stronger bond that deals with millions of people in Pakistan, for whom we want to try to help build energy projects, new jobs, decent homes, education and health care,” Kerry told a gathering of reporters in Lahore.
Punjab provincial police officials have called the shooting a “clear-cut case of murder.” According to police, Davis claims he had stopped his car at a red light when two men on a motorcycle pulled up. When one of the men pulled out a pistol and aimed it at the American, he fired at them through the windshield in self-defense, Davis told police. Witnesses say Davis then got out of his car and snapped photos of the men before driving away. He was pulled over by police minutes later and arrested.
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 another person on a motorcycle. Pakistani police say the Lahore consulate has refused to turn over the driver to authorities.
The men on the motorcycle, Faizan Haider and Faheem Shamshad, were carrying stolen cell phones and handguns, police said. But Lahore Police Chief Aslam Tareen says Davis’ claim of self-defense doesn’t hold up because Haider was shot in the back as he tried to flee. Tareen also said although police found bullets in the magazine of one man’s gun, they found no bullet in its chamber.
At least one of the witnesses, a traffic police officer, has told investigators he saw one of the Pakistani men pull out a pistol moments before Davis began firing, according to Punjab police sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case. Also, both men were known to police as members of a robbery gang, the sources said.
In the working-class Lahore neighborhood where Faizan Haider had lived, banners draped over dangling power lines proclaim, “Hang the American murderer!” and “Is Pakistani blood so cheap?” Inside Haider’s house, relatives say they are preparing to mount a protest Islamabad could not ignore.
“The nation is with us in this cause,” said Mukhtar Ahmed, 50, Haider’s cousin. “People are saying it will be like Egypt, but it will be beyond that. Even if the government isn’t with us, the people are.”