India lashed back at U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara over the arrest and strip-search of its diplomat in New York and demanded all charges against the woman be dropped, as Secretary of State John Kerry sought to resolve a row between the two nations.
Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said in an interview today that he’s told the U.S. to abandon the case against diplomat Devyani Khobragade for lying on a visa application about the wages she paid her housekeeper. Bharara has interfered in India’s own legal system by disrupting existing court proceedings against the housekeeper in New Delhi, a foreign ministry statement said today.
The dispute threaten to damage what has otherwise been a decade of collaboration between the world’s two biggest democracies as they deepen trade and defense ties and strengthen cooperation to fight terrorism.
“There is only one victim in this case,” the foreign ministry said in its e-mail today. “That victim is Devyani Khobragade.”
The one-page comment was in response to a three-page statement released yesterday by Bharara, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, in which he addressed “misinformation and factual inaccuracy” about the Khobragade case.
Kerry yesterday sought to mend ties with India over the incident, expressing his regret in a call to Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon to convey “his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India,” the State Department said in a statement.
Khurshid, in comments today before the foreign ministry statement criticizing Bharara, said the call was a “good start” to repairing relations.
While Kerry said that foreign diplomats in the U.S. should be “accorded respect and dignity just as we expect our own diplomats should receive overseas,” he stopped short of an apology and stressed the importance of enforcing U.S. laws.
India removed concrete security barricades outside of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, canceled airport passes for American diplomats and froze import requests in response to Khobragade’s arrest.
Bharara, who won the largest insider trading case in U.S. history last month, said yesterday Khobragade submitted a false visa application for an employee who was to work as her housekeeper and babysitter, and paid her “far below” minimum wage. He called legal action initiated against the housekeeper in India an attempt to silence her.
‘So Much Outrage’
“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,” Bharara, a U.S. citizen who was born in India, said in the statement.
Khobragade “was fully searched by a female Deputy Marshal -- in a private setting -- when she was brought into the U.S. Marshals’ custody, but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not, in order to make sure that no prisoner keeps anything on his person that could harm anyone, including himself,” Bharara said. “This is in the interests of everyone’s safety.”
Bharara said Khobragade was given courtesies not normally accorded to other defendants and wasn’t arrested in front of her children as had been reported. He said agents let her make phone calls from a car for about two hours, brought her coffee and offered to get her food.
‘Rule of Law’
“This Office’s sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law -- no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are.”
Khobragade, who works in India’s consulate general in New York, was arrested on Dec. 12, presented before a U.S. magistrate judge and released later the same day.
“Dr. Khobragade is protected from prosecution by virtue of her diplomatic status,” her lawyer Daniel Arshack said in an e-mail, calling the incident “a significant error in judgment and an embarrassing failure of U.S. international protocol.”
Khobragade has been transferred to a position at India’s United Nations mission in New York from her consular role to give her greater diplomatic immunity, the Press Trust of India reported yesterday, without citing anyone for the information. Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. hasn’t received the required notification of such a transfer.
Khurshid told India’s parliament yesterday that Khobragade’s housekeeper blackmailed her for money and U.S. legal residency.
The Indian embassy in Washington yesterday said a Delhi court issued an injunction against the housekeeper on Sept. 20 to restrain her from initiating legal actions against Khobragade outside India and that on Nov. 19 a different Delhi court had issued an arrest warrant for the housekeeper.
“When there is a prior legal process already underway in India, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney should consider it obligatory to enable justice to take its course in India in the first instance,” the Indian foreign ministry statement said today.
“Our actions are not tit-for-tat,” Khurshid told reporters today in New Delhi, while elaborating on the way forward to end the spat. “I would have to look at some shift in the status of these U.S.-based employees, take care of the issue of immunity and what is perceived to be U.S. law on salaries.”
Fraud, False Statement
The visa fraud charge against Khobragade carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, if she’s convicted, according to Bharara’s office. The maximum for the false statements charge is five years.
She was required to surrender her travel documents and ordered to remain in the U.S. She was barred from contacting the employee, whom prosecutors referred to in their complaint as “Witness-1.”
The case is U.S. v. Khobragade, 13-mj-02870, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org