Kerry 'regrets' India diplomat Devyani Khobragade row

Tim Allman reports on the growing diplomatic row

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US Secretary of State John Kerry has called a top Indian official to express his regret over the treatment of an Indian diplomat arrested in New York on suspicion of visa fraud.

Deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade was handcuffed and strip-searched last week.

Mr Kerry spoke to India's national security adviser, who had described the treatment as "despicable and barbaric".

He said the "unfortunate" incident should not damage US-Indian relations.

Ms Khobragade has denied allegations of visa fraud and making false statements, after she was accused of underpaying her Indian maid.

The maid had complained the diplomat was paying her less than the minimum wage stipulated under US visa requirements.

On Wednesday, Mr Kerry called Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon in an effort to ensure the incident would not hurt the two nations' close relationship.

State department spokeswoman Marie Harf said it was "particularly important to Secretary Kerry that foreign diplomats serving in the United States are accorded respect and dignity just as we expect our own diplomats should receive overseas".

Ms Khobragade appeared in a Manhattan court last Friday and was freed on bail.

What is diplomatic immunity?

  • A form of legal immunity that ensures diplomats are exempt from prosecution under the host country's laws
  • Agreed as international law in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961)
  • Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963) a consul is afforded a variation of diplomatic immunity called consular immunity
  • It guarantees immunity from the host country's laws only with respect to acts related to consular duties

Meanwhile prosecutor Preet Bharara said in a statement that she "was accorded courtesies well beyond what other defendants, most of whom are American citizens, are accorded".

"It is true that she was fully searched by a female Deputy Marshal - in a private setting - when she was brought into the US Marshals' custody, but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not," he said.

"One wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?"

Earlier, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Ms Khobragade's treatment as "deplorable".

Foreign Minister Salman Khursheed said it was his duty to restore the diplomat's dignity.

"In terms of giving a strong, unambiguous, direct message to the United States of America: whatever I believe we were supposed to do, we did immediately," Mr Khursheed told the Indian parliament.

India media reported on Wednesday Ms Khobragade was being transferred from her post as deputy consul general in New York to the UN mission in an effort to secure her immunity.

But Ms Harf later said the state department had not received any request to approve a reassignment of the Indian diplomat.

India has ordered a series of reprisals against the US. Security barricades around the US embassy in Delhi were removed and a visiting US delegation was snubbed.

'National outrage'
Devyani Khobragade at an event in New York Devyani Khobragade is the deputy consul general of India in New York

Opposition MPs from several Indian parties have called on the government to take further action against the US.

Arun Jaitley of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said India should take its bilateral relations more seriously and "insist on being treated like equals" by Washington.

On Wednesday morning, The Times of India quoted from a letter Ms Khobragade wrote to her foreign service colleagues in which she complained of a series of humiliations at the hands of the US authorities.

"Although I must admit that 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, I got the strength to regain composure and remain dignified thinking that I must represent all of my colleagues and my country with confidence and pride," she wrote.

Ms Khobragade, 39, was arrested last Thursday in New York and later freed on a $250,000 (£153,000) bond after pleading not guilty to the charges.

According to a filing in federal court in New York, Ms Khobragade wrote on a visa application she planned to pay the maid and childcare worker $4,500 (£2,746) per month.

But investigators said the maid was instead paid $573 per month, or $3.31 per hour based on a 40-hour work week - less than the New York state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

If found guilty, she faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making false statements.

Ms Khobragade will challenge her arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity, her lawyer said.

"This started as a political issue," her lawyer Daniel Arshack told the BBC, "it should be resolved as a political issue" through diplomatic channels.

The US state department said that Ms Khobragade did not have full diplomatic immunity.

It said under the UN's Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, she is immune from arrest only for crimes committed in connection with her work.

A protest near the US embassy in New Delhi December 18, 2013 Anger has been rising in India against the alleged ill-treatment of the diplomat

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