LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Pakistani court on Tuesday barred the government from handing over a U.S. diplomat arrested for killing two Pakistanis to the United States, in a case that could create new strains between the allies.
The United States has called for the immediate release of the American, identified by Pakistani police as Raymond Davis.
He told a court that he had acted in self-defense after fleeing what he said was a robbery attempt in the eastern city of Lahore last week.
Pakistan is a crucial ally for the United States in its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. But the Islamabad government has to act cautiously because anti-American sentiments run high in the Muslim nation.
Acting on a petition by a lawyer requesting that the government be stopped from turning him over to the United States, the Lahore High Court ruled that Davis could not be moved out of Pakistan while his case was pending in court.
"The high court has said Raymond Davis should neither be handed over to any country nor be moved out of the jurisdiction of this court," the lawyer, Iqbal Jaffery, told Reuters.
A court official confirmed the decision.
Jaffery said the court also ruled that it was its prerogative to decide whether Davis enjoyed diplomatic immunity or not.
This could be a politically-explosive issue for the government of President Asif Ali Zardari.
Hardline Islamic groups have warned authorities against releasing Davis. Some members of the Pakistani media, which have in the past accused U.S. aid workers of being spies, have also called for Davis to be put on trial in Pakistan.
Washington has pumped billion of dollars in aid to Pakistan but remains deeply unpopular in the country partly because of missile strikes by unmanned U.S. drone aircraft against militant sanctuaries in the border regions with Afghanistan.
After first identifying the man as a staff member of the U.S. consulate in Lahore, the embassy on Saturday described him as a diplomat and said he had been unlawfully detained by authorities.
Arresting the diplomat was a violation of international norms and the Vienna Convention, it said.
The embassy said the diplomat acted in self-defense when confronted by two armed men and had every reason to believe they meant to harm him.
A U.S. Congressional delegation met Zardari on Monday and raised the issue.
"The President said that he appreciated their concern but the matter was already before the courts," presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said. "It would be prudent to wait for the legal course to be completed," he quoted Zardari as saying.
Davis was remanded on Friday in police custody for six days for questioning.