India outraged by strip-search of diplomat in NYC

3:00 PM, Dec 18, 2013   |    comments
Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general(Photo: Mohammed Jaffer, AP)
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The U.S. State Department was scrambling to tamp down Indian outrage over the arrest of a diplomat in New York City who says she was stripped- and cavity-searched over charges that she didn't pay her housekeeper enough money.

"We don't want this to negatively impact our bilateral relationship (with India), and we'll keep talking about it with them on the ground and here," said Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the State Department.

"The U.S. and India enjoy a broad and deep friendship, and this isolated episode is not in any way indicative of the close and respectful ties that we share," Harf said.

Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, said the U.S. Marshals Service subjected her to an intrusive search and DNA swabbing following her arrest last week outside her daughter's Manhattan school on visa charges despite her "incessant assertions of immunity."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the diplomat's treatment as "deplorable" and protests have broken out in India.

The case has infuriated the India government, which revoked privileges and identification cards for U.S. diplomats in India to protest her treatment. Indian police also removed security barriers around the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

Harf said Tuesday that the safety and security of U.S. diplomats and facilities are "a top priority. We'll continue to work with India to ensure that all of our diplomats and consular officers are being afforded full rights and protections."

Among those assailing the arrest were Narendra Modi, a candidate for prime minister in upcoming national elections for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, and Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Nehru-Gandhi family leading India's ruling Congress party, according to the Hindustan Times. They were among Indian leaders who snubbed a visiting U.S. congressional delegation over Khobragade's treatment.

Khobragade was arrested last Thursday in Manhattan on charges that she lied on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national.

Prosecutors say the maid received less than $3 per hour for her work, far less than U.S. minimum wage laws. In an e-mail published in India media, Khobragade said she was treated like a common criminal.

"I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity," she wrote.

Khobragade was released on $250,000 bail but as a condition of her release must report to police in New York every week.

Khobragade was apprehended by the U.S. Department of State's diplomatic security team and then handed over to the U.S. Marshals Service, which confirmed that it had strip-searched Khobragade and placed her in a cell with other female defendants. It described the measures as "standard arrestee intake procedures."

In India, fear of public humiliation resonates strongly and heavy-handed treatment by the police is normally reserved for the poor. For an educated, middle-class woman to face public arrest and a strip search is almost unimaginable except in the most heinous crimes.

Prosecutors say Khobragade claimed on visa application documents she paid her Indian housekeeper $4,500 per month but that she actually paid her less than $3 per hour. Khobragade has pleaded not guilty and plans to challenge the arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity.

Harf said Khobragade does not have full diplomatic immunity. Instead, she has consular immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions, she said.

The State Department notified India of allegations of abuse by the maid against Khobragade in September, Harf said. If convicted, Khobragade faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration.

India has retaliated against U.S. diplomats by not only revoking diplomat ID cards but demanding to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in U.S. Embassy households. India has also withdrawn import licenses that allowed the commissary at the U.S. Embassy to import duty-free alcohol and food.

In a dangerous move, police removed the traffic barricades near the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi that are designed to prevent attacks. India said the barriers clogged up traffic.

On Wednesday, dozens of people protested outside the U.S. Embassy, saying Khobragade's treatment was an insult to all Indian women. In New Delhi, the lower house of Parliament had to be temporarily adjourned Wednesday after lawmakers noisily demanded that it adopt a resolution against the United States.

Arun Jaitely, leader of the opposition in the upper house, said the government had to register its "strongest protest" to the U.S. government for the "lack of respect for India." He called for a review of India's relations with the United States, a demand that was vociferously seconded by many lawmakers.

BJP leader, Yashwant Sinha called on the government to expel all gay partners of U.S. diplomats, according to Indian newspaper The Hindu. Indian law considers homosexuality a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison for "voluntarily having carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal."

Contributing: The Associated Press

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