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Indian Diplomat’s Strip-Search Triggers Fight With U.S.

The Consulate General of India building stands in New York. Photographer: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
The Consulate General of India building stands in New York. Photographer: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Dec. 18 (Bloomberg) -- India scaled back security outside the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and revoked transit privileges for American diplomats as a row deepened over the arrest and strip-search of a consular official in New York.

The Indian official, Devyani Khobragade, 39, who was arrested on Dec. 12, wrote in an e-mail to colleagues that she was subjected to a cavity search during detention. India retaliated by removing concrete security barricades outside the consular section of the embassy in the nation’s capital, canceling airport passes for U.S. diplomats and freezing import requests, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said today.

Mounting tensions 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. During his visit in November 2010, President Barack Obama called the relationship with India, a Cold War ally of the Soviet Union, “one of the defining and indispensable partnerships of the 21st century.”

“It takes a long time to build up a relationship of mutual trust, and it is very easy to spoil it with such an incident,” said S. Chandrasekharan, director of the New Delhi-based South Asian Analysis Group. “People are reacting like the entire country has been insulted, not just one individual.”

Kerry’s Call

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “expressed his regret” about the incident in a phone call to Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon today, “as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India,” the State Department said in an e-mailed statement.

Kerry stopped short of an apology and said he “understands very deeply the importance of enforcing our laws and protecting victims, and, like all officials in positions of responsibility inside the U.S. government, expects that laws will be followed by everyone here in our country.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said yesterday that the U.S. was emphasizing to India the need “to ensure that all of our diplomats and consular officers are being afforded full rights and protections,” Harf said.

Khobragade, who works in India’s consulate general in New York, was arrested by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service around 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 12 in front of her daughter’s school on West 97th Street in Manhattan, her lawyer Daniel Arshack, said in a telephone interview yesterday. She was held by U.S. Marshals in the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, where she was strip-searched. She was presented before a U.S. magistrate judge and released later the same day.

Treatment ‘Deplorable’

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today called Khobragade’s treatment “deplorable.”

Khobragade has been transferred to a position at India’s United Nations mission in New York from her consular role to give her great diplomatic immunity, the Press Trust of India reported today, without citing anyone for the information.

Khobragade was being blackmailed by her housekeeper-babysitter, who was seeking money and U.S. legal residency, Foreign Minister Khurshid said in the upper house of India’s parliament today. Khobragade’s pleas for help to the New York Police Department were never taken seriously, he said.

“Our sense as a nation, as a people and as human beings is that what has happened is totally and entirely unacceptable,” Khurshid said. “I will bring her back and restore her dignity. I will do it and show you all.”

‘Significant Error’

U.S. prosecutors said Khobragade submitted a false visa application for an employee who was to work as her housekeeper and babysitter, and court records show she was charged with one count each of visa fraud and making false statements.

“Dr. Khobragade is protected from prosecution by virtue of her diplomatic status,” Arshack said in an e-mail, calling the incident “a significant error in judgment and an embarrassing failure of U.S. international protocol.”

Khobragade, whose titles include diplomat for women’s affairs, declared on the visa application that she was paying a salary of $9.75 an hour -- above minimum wage as required by law, according to a statement from the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Instead, Khobragade and the Indian national agreed she would work for just $3.31 an hour, according to a Department of Justice statement.

‘Same Protections’

“Foreign nationals brought to the United States to serve as domestic workers are entitled to the same protections against exploitation as those afforded to United States citizens,” Bharara said in the Dec. 12 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.

Her strip-search was part of her detention, the U.S. Marshal’s Service said in a statement yesterday. Khobragade, in her e-mail to colleagues, also wrote she was held in a cell along with “common criminals and drug addicts.”

The official “was subject to the same search procedures as other USMS arrestees held within the general prisoner population in the Southern District of New York,” the Marshals Service said in its statement, responding to questions about whether she was strip-searched. “The arrestee was placed in a cell with other female defendants awaiting court proceedings.”

‘Appropriate Cell’

The diplomat was placed “in the available and appropriate cell” during her time in custody, according to the statement. The Marshals Service said Khobragade’s intake and detention were handled “in accordance with USMS Policy Directives and Protocols.”

Khobragade was released on a $250,000 unsecured bond, to be guaranteed by two co-signers. 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 reporters on this story: Kartikay Mehrotra in New Delhi at kmehrotra2@bloomberg.net; Andrew MacAskill in New Delhi at amacaskill@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

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