Indian consular official’s NY arrest sparks diplomatic row


A diplomatic row between India and the US over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York escalated on Wednesday, with New Delhi announcing retaliatory measures, including examining the work conditions of Indians employed in US consulates.


The spat was triggered by the December 12 arrest of Devyani Khobragade, a deputy consul general at the Indian Consulate in New York, on charges of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national.

Khobragade was later released on a $250,000 bond after pleading not guilty to the charges.

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid subsequently said his government would be examining the labour conditions of Indian citizens hired as foreign national staff at US consulates.

He cited a few retaliatory measures he said the government would take against US consulate staff, including revoking identity cards that speed up travel into and out of India and a freeze on the duty-free import of food alcohol.

The Khobragade case has sparked widespread outrage across India, with a usually fractious parliament uniting to condemn the diplomat's arrest and treatment in New York.

Addressing parliament on Tuesday, Khurshid vowed to “bring back the woman diplomat and restore her dignity – it is my responsibility,” he added.

Detained with 'common criminals’

Khobragade was arrested and handcuffed outside her daughter’s Manhattan school last week.

In an email published by Indian news media on Wednesday, Khobragade said she was treated like a “common criminal” despite informing US officials that she was a diplomat.

“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 [diplomatic] immunity,'' she wrote.

Earlier this week, US State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf maintained that US diplomatic security officials followed standard procedures during Khobragade's arrest.

Harf added that, under the Vienna Convention, an Indian deputy consul general is only offered immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.

Prosecutors say Khobragade claimed on visa application documents that she paid her Indian maid $4,500 per month, but that she actually paid her less than $3 per hour.

If convicted, the Indian consular official faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration.

Khobragade has pleaded not guilty and plans to challenge the arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity.

By Wednesday, following a massive outcry in the Indian media and anti-US protests in a number of cities, US Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in on the brouhaha.

In a phone call to Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, Kerry expressed his regret over the handling of the arrest and said he "empathises with the sensitivities we are hearing from India about the events," according to a State Department spokeswoman.

Heavy-handed police treatment common in India – for the poor

But the revelation that a high-ranking diplomat could be subjected to such treatment has caused huge offence in a country that sees itself as an emerging world power.

On Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Khobragade’s arrest and treatment "deplorable" in brief comments reported by the Press Trust of India.

The fallout of the incident has been growing in a country where heavy-handed treatment by the police is common, but is usually reserved for the poor.

On Tuesday, police in New Delhi removed the traffic barricades near the US Embassy compound in retaliation over Khobragade's treatment. The barriers were a safety measure but India said they clogged up traffic.

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 US 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.

In an interview with an Indian TV station, a senior opposition politician said India should reciprocate by arresting the same-sex companions of US diplomats using an Indian Supreme Court verdict that restored a ban on gay sex last week.

"My suggestion to the government of India is, the media has reported that we have issued visas to a number of US diplomats' companions. 'Companions' means that they are of the same sex,” said Yashwant Sinha of the opposition BJP party. “Now, after the Supreme Court ruling, it is completely illegal in our country. Just as paying less wages was illegal in the US. So, why doesn't the government of India go ahead and arrest all of them?” asked Sinha.

 (FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS )


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