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The furor over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul-general in New York, is escalating. (Reuters)
The furor over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul-general in New York, is escalating. (Reuters)

India demands diplomat case be dropped; U.S. prosecutor pushes back Add to ...

The row between India and the United States after the arrest and strip search of a New York-based Indian diplomat continued to escalate Thursday and threatened to further fray relations between the two allies.

In the latest developments, the U.S. prosecutor pushed back against Indian outrage, Indian politicians ratcheted up pressure on the United States and more details emerged about the underpaid maid, who is being accused by Indian officials of trying to blackmail her employer.

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India’s deputy consul-general, Devyani Khobragade, 39, was arrested a week ago after dropping off her daughter at a Manhattan school and charged with visa fraud and making a false statement in connection with her former maid, Sangeeta Richard.

On Wednesday, it looked as though tensions were being defused. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called a senior Indian national security official and expressed regret over the diplomat’s treatment. But the furor continues.

Prosecutor pushes back

Preet Bharara is the crusading Indian-born U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York who has filed cases against public officials accused of corruption, terror suspects and Wall Street executives involved in insider trading.

He has strong links with the Democratic Party, is admired within the Indian-American community and often the subject of much talk about his political ambitions

Mr. Bharara now finds himself at the centre of a growing diplomatic storm between the country where he was born and the country where he grew up and has made a name for himself.

The original press release issued by the U.S. attorney after Ms. Khobragade’s arrest last Thursday gave a detailed account of how she had allegedly broken U.S. laws that have been put in place to protect foreign nationals from exploitative treatment.

As Indian outrage grew over details of Ms. Khobragade’s treatment – in particular the strip search, which U.S. officials confirmed and described as standard procedure – Mr. Bharara took the unsual step of issuing a strident 1,000-word statement Wednesday night.

The prosecutor is clearly not backing down. Instead, he asked why all the attention and outrage were focused on the treatment of the Indian diplomat, “but precious little outrage” about the alleged treatment of the maid, he said.

The prosecutor also sought to dispel Indian media reports that she was arrested in front of her children or that she was handcuffed. He said the arrest was done discreetly, she was allowed to use her phone to make arrangements for child care and she was brought a coffee and offered food.

But on the subject of a strip search, Mr. Bharara was firm. “It is true that she was fully searched by a female deputy marshal – in a private setting – when she was brought into the U.S. Marshals’ custody, but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not, in order to make sure that no prisoner keeps anything on his person that could harm anyone, including himself. This is in the interests of everyone’s safety,” he said.

Indian outrage

Among Indian commentators and officials, the response to the U.S. attorney’s comments has been swift. India’s Ministry of External Affairs said Thursday that the only victim in the case was the Indian diplomat – highlighting the two very different views of the case.

The crux of the outrage is that Ms. Khobragade was treated as a common criminal and subjected to a strip search – which is seen by Indians as degrading, humiliating and unnecessary.

When Mr. Kerry expressed his regret on Wednesday over the incident, he took the extra step of empathizing with the Indian outrage by mentioning that he has two daughters who are about the same age as the diplomat.

But Indian politicians were not buying it. “A mere regret won’t make us happy. They must offer a clear apology and accept that they made a mistake. That is what we will be satisfied with,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid went one step further and demanded that the case be dropped immediately.

That sets the stage for an awkward telephone conversation later Thursday between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Khurshid. It will be the first conversation between the top diplomats from the United States and India since the arrest and ensuing controversy.

Former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns, sensing Mr. Kerry’s difficult position, tweeted on Thursday: “On #India diplomat, #Kerry strikes right balance – respect for law in US but also concern for manner of arrest.”

Counter-allegations

So far, the allegations have centred on Ms. Khobragade and her treatment of her Indian-born maid.

But details have emerged about allegations against the maid, who is being accused by the Indian diplomat of theft and blackmail.

According to an official in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Ms. Khobragade had filed complaints in New York and New Delhi with the police over her maid’s attempts to blackmail her. An arrest warrant was issued in India against the maid.

The allegations, reported by CBS News, are that the maid tried to get her boss to raise her salary and change her visa status – so that she could work in other parts of the United States. In exchange, the maid is said to have promised not to report the diplomat to the authorities.

Ms. Khobragade is alleged to have paid her Indian-born maid – whose visa she helped to arrange – $3.31 per hour.

That is much less than New York’s current minimum wage of $7.25 – and far less than what she said she would pay the maid according to the visa application: an hourly salary of $9.75, amounting to a monthly income of $4,500. Instead, the maid is reported to have received about $573 a month.

Ms. Khobragade has pleaded not guilty to charges of visa fraud and making a false statement.

Indian media reported that the maid’s family had been flown to the United States.

Indian officials have questioned what right the U.S. has to “evacuate” Indian nationals.

It is a move Mr. Bharara defended, arguing that legal proceedings and an arrest warrant against the maid were attempts to “silence her” and get her to return to India.

“This office and the Justice Department are compelled to make sure that victims, witnesses and their families are safe and secure while cases are pending,” he said.

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