independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Drop envoy charges, India tells US

Indian Muslims burn an effigy of US president Barack Obama as they protest against the alleged mistreatment of a diplomat (AP)

India's foreign minister has demanded that the United States drop the case against a diplomat who was arrested and strip-searched in New York City, saying she was the victim of a blackmail attempt by her housekeeper.

The case has sparked a diplomatic furore between the United States and India, which is incensed over what its officials describe as degrading treatment of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York.

The US Marshals Service confirmed it strip-searched Ms Khobragade after her arrest, but denied her claim that she underwent a cavity search.

Ms Khobragade, 39, is accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her Manhattan housekeeper, an Indian national. According to prosecutors, she claimed she paid the woman 4,500 US dollars (£2,753) a month, but actually paid her around three dollars (£1.84) per hour.

The case has sparked widespread outrage in India, where the idea of an educated, middle-class woman facing a strip-search is almost unheard of, except in the most extraordinary crimes.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed regret over the incident, even as the US attorney in New York said she was treated well and questioned why there was more sympathy for the diplomat than the housekeeper.

Today, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid took issue with the entire premise of the case and accused the housekeeper of blackmail. He told reporters that the housekeeper had threatened over the summer to go to the police unless Ms Khobragade arranged a new passport for her, with a work visa and a large sum of money.

"We need to remember the simple fact that there is only one victim in this case," Mr Khurshid said. "That victim is Devyani Khobragade - a serving Indian diplomat on mission in the United States."

Mr Khurshid did not say how much money the housekeeper allegedly demanded. But two top Indian officials said she asked for 10,000 dollars (£6,117) in the presence of an immigration lawyer and two other witnesses.

He also said the US attorney had ignored the fact that a legal case was already under way in India in the dispute between the housekeeper and the diplomat. Ms Khobragade notified authorities in New York and Delhi over the summer that she was being blackmailed, and the Delhi police launched a case against the woman, Indian officials said.

Ms Khobragade's case has chilled US-Indian relations, and India has revoked privileges for US diplomats in protest. Mr Kerry called India's national security adviser on Wednesday to express his regret over what happened.

"This is an extremely distressing and hurtful incident that needs to be addressed," said Mr Khurshid. "We hope our concerns will be addressed. And if the US has any concerns that we need to address, we will examine them."

He also said that India did not want to sour relations with the United States over the issue, but would insist on the return of its diplomat and the dropping of charges against her.

Ms Khobragade could face a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration if convicted. She has said she has full diplomatic immunity. The Department of State disputes that, saying her immunity is limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.

AP

Press Association

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