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A Pakistani court on Tuesday blocked any move to free a US government employee under investigation for double murder as Washington stepped up calls for his release, citing diplomatic immunity.
The US consular employee, whom Pakistani police identified as Raymond Davis, was arrested last Thursday after shooting dead two motorcyclists, claiming that he acted in self-defence, fearing that they were about to rob him.
A third Pakistani was knocked down and killed by a vehicle from the US consulate in Lahore that tried to rescue Davis. The American was instead arrested by police and a case of double murder registered against him.
The incident has aroused huge controversy in Pakistan, dogged by rampant anti-Americanism over Washington's alliance with an unpopular government, the war in Afghanistan and US missile attacks targeting Islamists in the northwest.
A senior Pakistani judge in Lahore on Tuesday blocked any move to hand the American over to US authorities and put his name on the exit control list.
"I am restraining him (from being handed over to US authorities). Whether he has or does not have (diplomatic) immunity will be decided by the court," ruled Lahore high court chief justice Ijaz Ahmed Chaudhry.
"An order is issued to put his name on the ECL (exit control list). The case is adjourned for 15 days."
A Pakistani lawyer had petitioned the Lahore high court under public interest laws to block any move to hand Davis over to the United States.
Washington says its employee belongs to its US embassy's "technical administrative staff" and is therefore entitled to "full criminal immunity".
The Pakistani government has yet to confirm publicly the American's diplomatic status but some Pakistani lawyers and officials argue that immunity should be waived in cases of the most serious crimes.
Representing the Pakistani government in court, deputy attorney general Naveed Inayat Malik asked the judge to give "time" to the Pakistani foreign ministry to determine whether Davis has diplomatic immunity or not.
The United States on Monday again called for the American's release, saying that he acted in legitimate self-defence.
"He cannot be lawfully arrested or detained in accordance with the Vienna Convention," US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.
Visiting US congressmen on Monday asked President Asif Ali Zardari to free Davis. The head of state told them: "It would be prudent to wait for the legal course to be completed," according to his office.
Washington is adamant that Davis is being held unlawfully and supports his version of events that he was confronted by two armed men on motorcycles.
Davis "had every reason to believe that the armed men meant him bodily harm. And minutes earlier, the two men, who had criminal records, had robbed money and valuables at gunpoint from a Pakistani citizen," said Crowley.
But serious questions remain about why he was driving around with a gun, the precise sequence of events and how the American came to see the motorcyclists as a threat. Neither have US officials confirmed his name.
The Pakistani lawyer who brought the private petition, Saeed Zafar, argues diplomatic immunity can be waived for the most serious crimes.
Khawaja Haris, the advocate general of Punjab -- the chief law officer in the province where Davis shot the motorcyclists -- told the court that the Vienna Convention provides immunity to diplomats "within certain limits."
Doctor Fakhar Zaman of Lahore's Mayo Hospital, who conducted a post-mortem on the two motorcyclists, told AFP that they were hit mostly from the back.
He said Mohammad Faheem received bullets to the brain, left of his back, left arm, chest and abdomen, apparently fired through the windscreen of a car, and that Faizan Haider was shot in the chest, back and kidney.
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