Kerry ‘regrets’ diplomat treatment as India seethes

People walk past the Indian Mission to the United Nations building in New York on Dec 18, 2013.  India has transferred Devyani Khobragade, a deputy consul general at the Indian Consulate in New York whose arrest led to a diplomatic row between t
People walk past the Indian Mission to the United Nations building in New York on Dec 18, 2013.  India has transferred Devyani Khobragade, a deputy consul general at the Indian Consulate in New York whose arrest led to a diplomatic row between the two countries, to the Indian Mission to the United Nations for full diplomatic immunity. The United States on Wednesday voiced regret to India over the treatment of Ms Khobragade. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States on Wednesday voiced regret to India over the treatment of a diplomat whose account of being stripped and cavity-searched triggered outrage.

With New Delhi vowing to “restore the dignity” of diplomat Devyani Khobragade at any price, Indian media reported that the 39-year-old was being moved from her post as deputy consul general in New York to the UN mission in a bid to thwart her prosecution.

As anger boiled in normally US-friendly India and the government retaliated against US diplomats, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to end the row in a telephone call with India’s national security advisor Shivshankar Menon.

“As a father of two daughters about the same age as Devyani Khobragade, the secretary empathizes with the sensitivities we are hearing from India about the events that unfolded after Ms. Khobragade’s arrest,” a State Department statement said.

Speaking to Mr Menon, Mr 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,” it said.

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.”

The White House also tried to quell the rift, with spokesman Jay Carney saying that “this isolated episode is not indicative of the close and mutually respectful ties that we share.”

Dr Khobragade was arrested on December 12 in New York for allegedly paying a domestic worker a fraction of the minimum wage and for lying about the employee’s salary in a visa application. She is free on bail.

The fury in India grew Wednesday after an email from Dr Khobragade in which the diplomat said she had been repeatedly stripped and cavity-searched by the US authorities after her detention. “I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a hold-up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity,” she said in the email.

“I got the strength to regain composure and remain dignified, thinking that I must represent all of my colleagues and my country with confidence and pride.”

The revelation that a high-ranking diplomat could be subjected to such treatment at the hands of the United States has caused huge offense in a country that sees itself as an emerging world power.

In an address to parliament on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said it was his “duty to bring the lady back.” “We have to restore her dignity and I will do it at any cost,” he added.

He later told reporters that the US action was “unacceptable and it is something on which... we need to give a very clear clarion call that it must be reversed.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed the diplomat’s arrest “deplorable” as newspapers hailed his government for a series of reprisal measures.

US consular officials have also been told to return identity cards that speed up travel into and through India. Import clearances for duty free alcohol and other goods have been suspended.

With a general election just months away, the ruling Congress and the nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are both keen to be seen as standing up to the United States over the issue.