U.S. diplomats, but not prosecutors, seek to quell Khobragade dispute

WASHINGTON Fri Dec 20, 2013 8:48am IST

1 of 2. India's Deputy Consul General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, attends a Rutgers University event at India's Consulate General in New York, June 19, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mohammed Jaffer/SnapsIndia

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government sought to present a united front on Thursday and play down any signs of a rift between the State Department and law enforcement officials over how to handle the politically sensitive case of an Indian diplomat subjected to a strip search over alleged visa fraud.

The arrest has enraged India, which demanded that charges be dropped against the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade. New Delhi has also demanded the arrest of the housekeeper, also an Indian national, who had accused her of fraud and underpayment of wages.

In an unusual move, the United States flew the family of the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, out of India. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said attempts had been made in India to "silence" Richard and compel her to return home.

"It needs to be asked what right a foreign government has to 'evacuate' Indian citizens from India while cases are pending against them in the Indian legal system," an Indian foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday.

Before the diplomatic blow-up on Saturday, relations between the two countries had been seen as cordial and improving.

While the U.S. State Department attempted to tamp down the furor in India, U.S. prosecutors showed no signs they would drop their case against Khobragade. In a strongly worded statement on Wednesday, Bharara defended the investigation and treatment of Khobragade.

His statement came just hours after Secretary of State John Kerry called India's national security adviser to express regret about Khobragade's treatment.

On Thursday, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh to again stress the importance of the U.S.-Indian ties and to pledge to work through the complex issues of the case.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denied suggestions that the department was pressuring U.S. law enforcement to drop the case. "Not true," she told reporters.

Khobragade was arrested last week and released on $250,000 bail after giving up her passport and pleading not guilty to charges of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid Richard. She faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted of both counts.

The U.S. Justice Department confirmed that Khobragade was strip-searched after her arrest. A senior Indian government source has said the interrogation also included a cavity search, although U.S. officials have denied this.

Some tension between the State Department and the Justice Department is expected, because one is focused on international law and security while the other attempts to investigate alleged crimes without interference, said John Bellinger, who has held senior positions in both departments.

"Whether it was wise policy to actually arrest and detain someone for a non-violent crime like this, even if technically permissible under the Vienna Convention, is questionable to me. It's really quite surprising," said Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser and now a private lawyer at the firm Arnold & Porter.

The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations gives consular staff such as Khobragade limited but not absolute protection against prosecution.

OUTRAGE IN INDIA

Khobragade's arrest has fed into a pre-election ferment in India, with political parties of all colors voicing patriotic outrage.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told reporters that New Delhi was not convinced there was a case against Khobragade, who he said had been treated like a common criminal.

"We have asked for an explanation for what has happened ... and why, and we have asked for the cases to be dropped and withdrawn immediately," Khurshid told reporters.

"The worst that can be said about the lady who was involved ... is that she did not comply with the amount that was supposed to be paid under law," Khurshid said. "I don't think that justifies treating her like a common criminal."

In response to Khobragade's treatment, India has withdrawn some privileges given to U.S. diplomats and removed security barriers at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

In a report filed by Khobragade with police in India, the diplomat said the nanny told her in June that she felt "overburdened" by her work and wanted to be free to leave the house between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Khobragade responded that Richard had come to the United States on an official passport and "perhaps government rules do not permit her to stay beyond the limit of consulate premises," according to police and court documents seen by Reuters.

The report alleged that Richard had committed crimes under Indian law by making a "false promise" in order to enter the United States and was duty-bound to surrender her passport the moment she stopped working as a domestic servant for Khobragade.

A court order issued an arrest warrant for Richard, and - according to foreign minister Khurshid - her Indian passport has been revoked.

"Unless she takes asylum she will have to come back, she doesn't have a valid passport," he said. (Additional reporting by John Chalmers, Sruthi Gottipati and Suchitra Mohanty in New Delhi; Editing by Howard Goller, Ross Colvin and Mohammad Zargham)

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