NEW DELHI — India scaled back security outside the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi Wednesday 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 email to colleagues that she was subjected to a cavity search during detention.
India retaliated by removing concrete 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 in parliament Wednesday.
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.”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday that the United States has “conveyed at high levels to the government of India our expectations that India will continue to fulfill all of its obligations under the Vienna Convention.”
This step was taken in part in response to the removal of the embassy security barriers, Harf said in a briefing with reporters.
Under Secretary Wendy Sherman has spoken to officials at the Indian Embassy in Washington, Harf said, and U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell has contacted officials at India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
The United States is also stressing 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.
Khobragade 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.
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 email, 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.
“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 Tuesday. Khobragade, in her email 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.”
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.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said India was “shocked and appalled by the public embarrassment of the diplomat” and called for an immediate apology.
India’s National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said it was “despicable and barbaric,” the Associated Press reported.
A judge in the U.S. Southern District of New York will now decide if her arrest is justified as “a grave crime” considering her diplomatic immunity, Akbaruddin said.
The United States sought diplomatic immunity for a U.S. Consulate worker in Pakistan after he shot dead two Pakistani men on a Lahore street in 2011.
The U.S. India Political Action Committee, an advocacy group, condemned the diplomat’s arrest procedures and said in a statement that it’s asking members of Congress to investigate the matter.
Not since the Clinton administration imposed economic and military sanctions against the South Asian nation for nuclear tests in 1998 has the relationship faced such strain.
Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and incumbent chief minister of Gujarat state, said on Twitter: “Refused to meet the visiting USA delegation in solidarity with our nation, protesting ill-treatment meted to our lady diplomat in USA.”
Modi is under a U.S. visa ban that prevents him from traveling to the nation because of his alleged role in the 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat that killed 1,000 people including Muslims. He has denied any wrongdoing.
National elections are due to be held in India by May 2014. Polls show the ruling Congress party-led coalition will probably lose power.
Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member and former Indian finance minister, suggested arresting the same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats, after India’s Supreme Court last week upheld a law outlawing gay sex.
“This one isolated episode should not impact the bilateral relationship,” Harf said. “We work together on so many important issues, and that’s why we’ll keep talking to the government about how to move forward.”
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