Washington - US Secretary of State John Kerry called a top Indian official to express regret about the case of an Indian diplomat strip-searched after her arrest in New York last week on charges including visa fraud, the State Department said on Wednesday.
Kerry's call to Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, disclosed by the US State Department, aimed to defuse a diplomatic crisis sparked by the December 12 arrest of Devyani Khobragade on charges of visa fraud and underpaying her nanny, an Indian national.
India has been furious in its response to what it considers the degrading treatment of a senior diplomat by the United States, a country it sees as a close friend, and retaliated on Tuesday by removing security barriers at the US Embassy in New Delhi. The barriers would offer some protection against a suicide-bomb attack.
“As a father of two daughters about the same age as Devyani Khobragade, the secretary empathises with the sensitivities we are hearing from India about the events that unfolded after Ms Khobragade's arrest,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a written statement.
“In his conversation with National Security Advisor Menon, (Secretary Kerry) expressed his regret, as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India,” Harf added.
An expression of regret, in the world of diplomacy, is generally viewed as something short of an outright apology. Harf said Kerry had used the word “regret” in his conversation with Menon, but she declined to elaborate on whether this constituted an apology or to offer greater detail on their discussion.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration is looking into the arrest “to ensure that all standard procedures were followed and that every opportunity for courtesy was extended”.
The White House has told Indian officials it expects New Delhi will “fulfil all its obligations” for the safety and security of US diplomats in India, Carney said.
The US Justice Department confirmed that Khobragade was strip-searched. A senior Indian government source has also said the interrogation included a cavity search.
A spokeswoman for the US Marshals Service, Nikki Credic-Barrett, said Khobragade did not undergo a cavity search but did go through a strip search. Under the agency's regulations governing prisoner searches, a strip search can include a “visual inspection” of body cavities, including the nose, mouth, genitals and anus, without intrusion.
Khobragade told colleagues in an email of “repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing” and being detained in a holding cell with petty criminals, despite her “incessant assertions of immunity”.
According to Credic-Barrett, anyone brought to the holding cells inside the New York federal courthouse, where Khobragade made her initial appearance after her arrest, is automatically subjected to a strip search if he or she is placed among other prisoners. The blanket policy is for the safety of prisoners and marshals, she said.
While common in the United States, jail strip searches have prompted legal challenges from civil liberties groups concerned that the practice is degrading and unnecessary.
Ezekiel Edwards, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that despite a Supreme Court ruling last year upholding strip searches even in the absence of any suspicion the individual has contraband or weapons, law enforcement authorities should make an effort to distinguish between prisoners who merit invasive searches and those who pose no risk.
“Saying that it's not unusual is not to say that it should be acceptable,” he said.
India has appointed Khobragade to its permanent mission at the United Nations and her attorney Daniel Arshack said that, in her new role, she would have diplomatic immunity from prosecution retroactively.
However, the State Department would have to sign off on a request to move her from the consulate to the UN mission, and no such request has been received, Harf told reporters. She said the US government notified India of the allegations against Khobragade in September.
The Indian housekeeper whose paycheck is at the centre of the dispute, Sangeeta Richard, is said to be upset and disappointed the focus of the affair has shifted.
“The victim in this case is not a criminal defendant but the person who was denied her wages and underpaid for her work,” said Dana Sussman, an attorney with the Safe Horizon Anti-Trafficking Programme who is representing Richard.
Khobragade, who was released on $250 000 bail after giving up her passport and pleading not guilty to the charges, faces a maximum of 15 years in jail if convicted on both counts.
India and the United States have become close trade and security partners, but they have not totally overcome a history of distrust.
“It is no longer about an individual, it is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world,” Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told parliament, whose usually fractious members showed rare unity on the issue.
Khurshid said work conditions of Indians employed in US consulates would be investigated to root out any violations of labour laws, adding that there would be a freeze on the duty-free import of alcohol and food for diplomatic staff.
In New Delhi, supporters of a right-wing opposition party held a small protest near the US Embassy on Wednesday. About 30 demonstrators, some wearing masks of President Barack Obama and sarongs made from the US flag, demanded an apology.
The controversy over Khobragade's experience is not the first time that overseas observers have been horrified at the treatment of a foreign criminal defendant in the United States.
In 2011, when then-International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was paraded before TV cameras in handcuffs during what is known in the United States as a “perp walk”, or perpetrator walk, after being arrested in New York on charges of sexual assault, French media reacted with shock. Prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges.
In France, the presumption of innocence legally bars the media from showing defendants in handcuffs before they are convicted.
The Khobragade case is the latest concerning the Indian elite's alleged exploitation of their domestic workers, both at home and abroad.
Another official at India's consulate in New York was fined almost $1.5-million last year for using her maid as forced labour. Last month, the wife of a member of parliament was arrested in Delhi for allegedly beating her maid to death.
India says Khobragade's former housekeeper left her employer a few months ago and demanded help to obtain permanent resident status in the United States.
One Indian government minister, Shashi Tharoor, has argued that it is not reasonable to expect diplomats from developing countries to pay the US minimum wage to domestic staff because the envoys themselves earn less than that.