In a swift turn of events, arrested U. S. Embassy staffer Raymond Davis was freed on Wednesday after blood money was paid in accordance with Sharia law hours after he was charged with murder by a sessions court in Lahore.

That Davis – believed to be a Central Intelligence Agency operative -- had been let off was announced by Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah in the evening after the American had been taken out of the country by a special aircraft. ``The family members of the slain men appeared in the court and independently verified they had accepted the `diyat’ (compensation) and pardoned him,’’ the Minister announced.

There was no official word on the amount given as blood money. Two of the victims were shot down by the American and a third was knocked down by a U.S. Embassy vehicle rushing to his help. With the U. S. Embassy remaining tight-lipped about the developments except for a brief statement from Ambassador Cameron Munter, speculations were rife about the compensation -- said to be running into several hundred thousand dollars -- and also an offer of facilitating visas for family members of the victims keen on relocating to America.

The whereabouts of the immediate family members of the victims was unknown as their houses in Lahore were locked and their phones switched off. Neighbours claimed they had not seen them for nearly two days; wondering aloud after Davis’ release if they had left the country or been taken to a safe place in view of the security threat to them as they were under pressure from `religious’ right wing parties not to accept any compensation.

The acquittal took most Pakistanis – incensed over the issue since end-January – by surprise as it came hours after he was formally charged Davis for murder; leading to expectations of a drawn-out trial. After Davis was let off, lawyers of the victims’ families claimed they had been confined within the Kot Lakhpat Jail premises – where the court proceedings were held -- all afternoon and told to avoid the media. However, from all accounts, the families had come around to pardoning Davis and accepting the blood money prior to today’s proceedings.

Grateful for the generosity of the victims’ families, Mr. Munter said the Justice Department of the U.S. had opened an investigation into the January 27 shooting incident in Lahore. The shooting of the two men – believed to be intelligence operatives -- had put a huge strain on U.S.-Pakistan relations and bilateral contact over the past month-and-a-half has revolved around resolving this stalemate with even President Barack Obama calling for the release of Davis on grounds of diplomatic immunity.

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