LAHORE, Pakistan — A Pakistani court said Thursday it would proceed with the trial of an American CIA contractor accused of fatally shooting two Pakistanis, but delayed charging him, attorneys for both sides said.
The court also said there was no evidence that Raymond Allen Davis had diplomatic immunity as his attorneys and Washington insist, the attorneys said.
The decision was a blow to Washington, which says Davis is considered a diplomat and has protected status from prosecution. The immunity issue, however, is still being considered by the Lahore High Court, which could override Thursday's finding by the trial court.
The case has severely strained the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, whose alliance is considered a critical part of ending the war in Afghanistan.
Washington insists Davis was acting in self-defense against robbers. The Pakistani government, fearful of public backlash, has yet to make a determination on whether Davis has immunity and said the matter is up to the courts.
Davis appeared for the first time with defense counsel during Thursday's hearing.
"The court did not stop the trial on the basis of immunity," said his attorney, Zahid Bokhari, after the proceeding.
Asad Manzoor Butt, a lawyer representing victims in the case, said the next trial court hearing was set for Tuesday. The Lahore High Court is expected to take up the immunity question again on March 14.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said American officials "continue to stress to the Pakistani government and to the Pakistani courts that he has full immunity from criminal prosecution."
U.S. officials initially described Davis as a consulate or embassy employee but have since said on condition of anonymity that he was doing security work in Pakistan as a contractor for the CIA. They have said this does not make any difference to his right to diplomatic immunity.
Christians protest: Pakistani Christians burned tires and rallied for justice Thursday, a day after Islamist militants assassinated Shahbaz Bhatti, 42, minister for religious minorities and a Catholic who had braved death threats to speak out in their defense. Bhatti was gunned down in the capital, Islamabad, apparently because he had urged Pakistan to reform harsh laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.
Deadly attacks: A highway ambush and a car bomb attack in Pakistan's northwest area near the Afghan border killed 13 Pakistanis on Thursday, including nine policemen, officials said.