India, US try to smooth over arrested diplomat row

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NEW DELHI: India and the United States tried on Thursday to soothe a blistering row over the arrest and strip-search of a female diplomat in New York, saying it should not do lasting damage to ties.

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After US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “regret” at the episode in a fence-mending phone call, India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid hoped the “valuable relationship” would be back on an even keel shortly.

However in a sign of the sense of bruised pride and humiliation felt in India, Khurshid reiterated calls for a visa fraud case against the diplomat to be dropped and branded her treatment as “terrible”.

“My duty is not to allow anyone to damage relations, the relationship,” Khurshid told foreign journalists in New Delhi.

“We hope it will return [to normalcy]very soon.”

The spat was sparked by last Thursday’s arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general at its mission in New York, as she dropped her children off at school.

The 39-year-old, who is now free on bail, was detained over allegations that she paid a domestic worker a fraction of the minimum wage and lied about the employee’s salary in a visa application.

Subsequent revelations that she was strip-searched have caused outrage in India, prompting a series of reprisal measures, including the removal of protective barricades outside the American embassy in New Delhi.

In his comments, Khurshid confirmed India was transferring Khobragade to its UN mission in New York to secure her full diplomatic immunity.

However such a move could prove complicated as any change of designation requires the US State Department’s approval.

In an email to colleagues published Wednesday, Khobragade wrote that she was repeatedly strip-searched and then subjected to a cavity search.

However Preet Bharara, the US federal prosecutor handling her case, has insisted Khobragade was arrested in the “most discreet” way possible, was never handcuffed and was searched by a female deputy marshal in private.

Khurshid, who on Wednesday pledged to bring Khobragade back home at any price, said India had asked for the case against her to be withdrawn.

“We are not convinced that there are legitimate grounds for pursuing it,” he said.

“I cannot believe if a US senator was arrested he would be put through this behavior. I have expressed my distress and dismay. . . I would rather not prejudge. Let us allow the American government to respond.”

In an interview with Indian television, Khurshid acknowledged there was “a sense of hurt” over the treatment of the diplomat at a time when the Obama administration is looking to bolster ties with New Delhi.

“Things happen between friends, even things that are terrible,” he told the CNN-IBN network.

In his call to India’s national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, Kerry “expressed his regret, as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship,” according to the US State Department.

Deputy 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.”

Bharara, the US attorney, insisted his sole motivation was to uphold the rule of law, protect victims and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law “no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are.”

The worker is said to have been paid just $3.31 an hour—well below New York’s required $7.25—despite signing a contract to pay her three times that amount for childcare and other services.

Such wages however are well above the average in India.

The spat is the second diplomatic standoff between India and a major Western nation this year.

India reacted furiously in March when Italy reneged on a promise to fly two marines back to New Delhi to face trial over a fatal shooting. The marines did eventually return after India ordered immigration authorities to prevent Italy’s ambassador from leaving the country.

With a general election just months away, the ruling Congress and the nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party are both keen to demonstrate their willingness to take a tough diplomatic line.

Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP foreign minister, has said that India should now arrest the same-sex partners of US diplomats after a court ruling last week that upheld a colonial-era ban on homosexuality.

The United States would be “very concerned” should gay diplomats be in danger, Harf said. AFP

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