US Argues Case of Domestic Abuse as India Huffs and Puffs

During happier times: US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell with former Indian Ambassador to the US Nirupama Rao

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Washington, DC – The United States on the last day of 2013 reiterated that the Obama Administration was looking at deepening the bilateral relationship with India beyond the ongoing controversy over one of the top Indian diplomat’s arrest and strip search in New York earlier this month.

US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell on Tuesday (December 31) in her New Year message from New Delhi expressed regrets for “the circumstances” of the arrest of Indian Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade, even as the two countries continued to stick to their positions on the issue. Powell, said she joins “Secretary Kerry in expressing our regret for the circumstances of the consular officer’s arrest, but we believe that we can look forward to continuing to expand our bilateral relations.”

Referring to “impressive developments” between India and the US in an wide range of areas, she said, “(The) forward movement has been jolted by very different reactions to issues involving one of your consular officers and her domestic worker.”

On December 12, 2013, Devyani Khobragade, the Deputy Consul General of India in New York, was arrested and allegedly treated like a hardened criminal by making her undergo a strip search and cavity search. She was arrested in the city on suspicion of visa fraud and making false statements, after being accused of paying her Indian maid, Sangeeta Richard, below the US minimum wage.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the US action deplorable, while Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told the Indian Parliament that India suspected a conspiracy against the Indian diplomat by American authorities.

Earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry called Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon in an effort to ensure the incident would not hurt the two nations’ close relationship.

Commenting on the call, the 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”.

But Secretary Kerry failed to call on his Indian counterpart Foreign Minister Salman Khursheed, who made it clear in the Indian parliament that 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,” Khursheed told the Indian parliament.

Asked to comment on the failure, Harf said, “We’ve made very clear that the Secretary and all of us regret what played out here. And that’s a strong statement that we expressed personally and as representatives of the State Department and the US Government, and just don’t have anything more for you on that. What we’re focused on is moving the relationship forward.”

India moved Khobragade out from the consulate in New York to its permanent mission at the United Nations as the row escalated. Commenting on the move, a State Department Spokesperson told India America Today, “We received the paperwork from the United Nations on Friday, December 20. It is under review.”

Asked to comment when the review might be completed and if there were any precedents about denial in such cases, the State Department Spokesperson said, “We cannot predict when that review will be complete. We cannot compare this to previous requests as each request is evaluated on its own merits.”

The move is seen to be an attempt to ensure that Khobragade would receive full diplomatic immunity from prosecution as she will be accredited to the UN, not the US. The move could also be an opening for the US to drop charges against Khobragade. India has demanded an unconditional apology and dropping of all charges against the diplomat.

After presenting his credentials to the office of chief of protocol, S. Jaishankar, the new Indian Ambassador to the US, on Friday met under secretary for political affairs Wendy Sherman and under secretary for management Patrick F. Kennedy of the State Department. According to sources, the Indian Ambassador at his meetings with state department officials raised the issue of the withdrawal of charges against Khobargade.

The Government of India (GOI) has also sought the withdrawal of charges against Khobargade, as the State Department said it was looking into the issue of full diplomatic immunity ,which she is entitled to in her capacity as advisor to India’s permanent mission to the UN.

“We’re looking into it right now. Our folks are taking a look at that issue. Still looking into it, don’t have any update on that,” said Marie Harf, the State Department Deputy Spokesperson at the regular press briefing on Monday (December 30).

In a retaliatory move, the GOI had on December 19 – a week after the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade — withdrawn all special airport passes to US diplomats, which allowed them access to several places at the airport, not just while traveling but also for receiving and seeing off guests.

The US also sought more time to submit details sought by India, including salaries paid to all Indian staff employed at the US consulates, due to Christmas and New Year vacations.

A State Department spokesperson on Tuesday (December 31) told India America Today, “Generally, compensation plans for locally employed staff at US missions abroad are based upon prevailing wage rates and compensation practices for corresponding types of positions in the employment locality.”

While the charges and counter charges continue, there are no plans to drop charges against or apologize for the arrest of Khobragade, US sources are quoted as saying in a Press Trust of India report.

The Press Trust of India news agency quoted US sources as saying that the US is gathering more evidence against the diplomat ahead of January 13, the deadline for her indictment.

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