WASHINGTON: The United States voiced regret to India over the treatment of a diplomat whose account of being stripped and cavity-searched triggered outrage as the prosecutor in charge of the case defended the arrest.
With New Delhi vowing to “restore the dignity” of diplomat Devyani Khobragade, Indian media reported that the 39-year-old was being moved from her post as deputy consul general in New York to the UN mission in a bid to thwart her prosecution.
In a strongly worded statement, Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said the diplomat had “clearly tried to evade US law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers.”
Khobragade is free on bail after her December 12 arrest in New York for allegedly paying a domestic worker a fraction of the minimum wage and for lying about the employee’s salary in a visa application.
Bharara, who was born in India, stressed that the employee allegedly worked “far more” than the 40 hours a week in her contract and visa application.
The worker is said to have been paid just $3.31 an hour – well below New York’s required $7.25 – despite signing a contract to pay her three times that amount for childcare and other services.
“Is it for US prosecutors to look the other way, ignore the law and the civil rights of victims (again, here an Indian national), or is it the responsibility of the diplomats and consular officers and their government to make sure the law is observed?” Bharara asked.
While India retaliated against American diplomats in the usually US-friendly country, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to end the row in a telephone call to India’s national security adviser Shivshankar Menon.
Kerry “expressed his regret, as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India,” in a call to Menon, the State Department said.
State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said it was “particularly important to Secretary Kerry that foreign diplomats serving in the United States are accorded respect and dignity just as we expect our own diplomats should receive overseas.”
The fury in India grew after an email from Khobragade in which the diplomat said she had been repeatedly stripped and cavity-searched by the US authorities after her detention.
“I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a hold-up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity,” she said in the email.
But Bharara, the US attorney, insisted that Khobragade was arrested in the “most discreet” way possible, was never handcuffed or restrained and was searched by a female deputy marshal in a “private setting.”
“One wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?” he asked.
But the diplomat’s allegations of harsh treatment at the hands of the United States has caused huge offense in a country that sees itself as an emerging world power.
In an address to parliament, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said it was his “duty to bring the lady back.”
“We have to restore her dignity and I will do it at any cost,” he said. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed the diplomat’s arrest “deplorable.”
Bulldozers dragged away concrete barricades that had been set up outside the US Embassy.
And US consular officials have been told to return identity cards that speed up travel into and through India, with their import clearances for duty free alcohol and other goods suspended.
State Department number three Wendy Sherman spoke to Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and voiced hope that Indian authorities “will continue to fulfill their host government obligations regarding the safety and security of our personnel and mission premises,” Harf said.
With a general election just months away, the ruling Congress and the nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party are both keen to be seen as standing up to the United States over the issue.
Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP foreign minister, said Tuesday that India should now arrest the same-sex partners of US diplomats after a court ruling last week that upheld a colonial-era ban on homosexuality.
The United States would be “very concerned” should gay diplomats be in danger, Harf said.
Harf said the State Department has not received any notice that India wanted to change Khobragade’s credentials to the UN mission.
Such a move “would have to be approved by all appropriate authorities” at the UN and State Department, she said.