The Indian government, furious about the rough treatment of a female diplomat arrested in New York last week, moved Tuesday to sharply rein in privileges of U.S. diplomats working in India, escalating a rare dispute between two normally friendly nations.
India took what a senior government official termed “reciprocal measures,” revoking the ID cards of U.S. Embassy personnel and their families, rescinding airport passes, freezing embassy imports and investigating salaries paid to Indian staff at consulates and as domestic help, as well as those teaching at U.S. schools. As a final slap, workers came to the street outside the embassy complex and removed concrete security barricades.
Indian officials have alleged that the 39-year-old diplomat was strip-searched, cavity-searched and swabbed for DNA after her arrest in New York on fraud charges last Thursday, then confined with hardened drug criminals until her release the same day on $250,000 bail. India’s national security adviser called the treatment “despicable and barbaric.”
“Everything that can be done will be done,” India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, said Tuesday. “I can assure you we take this thing very seriously.”
The conflict began last week, when the deputy consul general at India’s consulate in New York was arrested and charged with visa fraud. The woman, Devyani Khobragade, is accused of making false statements during the visa application for the Indian national she brought to the United States to serve as a household staff member. She is also accused of paying the woman less than the minimum wage.
Marie Harf, the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, defended U.S. actions Monday, saying that the department’s diplomatic security officials had followed “standard procedures” during the arrest. She did not directly address reports that Khobragade was strip-searched and referred questions about arrest procedures to the U.S. Marshals Service, which handled intake and processing.
On Tuesday, Harf characterized the circumstances of the arrest as an “isolated episode” and a “law enforcement issue” and said they would be looked into.
“We understand that this is a sensitive issue for many in India,” she said. “Accordingly, we are looking into the intake procedures surrounding this arrest to ensure that all appropriate procedures were followed and every opportunity for courtesy was extended.”
The Marshals Service said in a statement Tuesday that “standard arrestee intake procedures” were followed. In response to specific media queries about whether a strip search had been conducted, the service said, “Yes, Devyani Khobragade was subject to the same search procedures as other USMS arrestees held within the general prisoner population in the Southern District of New York.” It said she been placed in an “available and appropriate cell.”
Asked Monday whether the diplomat was due any special consideration or enjoyed diplomatic immunity from prosecution, Harf drew a distinction between diplomatic and consular immunity.
“Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Indian deputy consul general enjoys immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions,” Harf said. “So, in this case, she fell under that specific kind of immunity and would be liable to arrest pending trial pursuant a felony arrest warrant.”
Khobragade has remained publicly silent. But she wrote a note this week thanking her Indian diplomatic colleagues for their support and describing how she broke down several times while being strip-searched, according to an Indian government official reached by e-mail.
According to court papers, Khobragade, who is described as an advocate for women’s issues, presented a work contract to U.S. authorities that said she would pay her maid-babysitter $9.75 an hour, as required.
But she later drew up a private contract with the maid and paid her only $3.31 an hour, the documents said. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said at the time of her arrest that foreign nationals brought to the United States to serve as domestic workers are entitled to the same protections against exploitation as U.S. citizens.
In the days since Khobragade’s arrest, the Indian government has lodged a formal complaint with Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to India, and several high-ranking Indian politicians refused to meet with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation to show their displeasure over the matter.
Diplomats in India said the alleged treatment of the deputy consul was “unprecedented” in the nearly 75-year relationship between the two countries, which has warmed over the years as India liberalized its trade policies, experienced an economic boom and committed to a civil nuclear energy pact.
“This is not the way friends and partners behave,” said a senior Indian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the extreme sensitivity of the matter. “We’ve never in our history — even with unfriendly countries — had anybody treat a diplomat like this. This is an outrage among all of us.”