Row grows after US Marshals strip-search Indian diplomat

Indian police remove barricades erected to protect the main entrance to the United States Embassy in New Delhi, reportedly in retaliation for the alleged mistreatment by US officials of New York-based Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, Dec 17, 2013.
Indian police remove barricades erected to protect the main entrance to the United States Embassy in New Delhi, reportedly in retaliation for the alleged mistreatment by US officials of New York-based Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, Dec 17, 2013. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US officials admitted on Tuesday that they strip-searched a female Indian diplomat after she was arrested in New York in a new twist to a growing row that has seen India hit back with reprisals such as removing security barriers around the US embassy.

The State Department sought to calm tensions saying Thursday's arrest of Ms Devyani Khobragade was an isolated case, and should not be allowed to damage the close ties between India and the United States.

However, confirmation from the US Marshals service that Ms Khobragade was treated like any person detained in the bustling metropolis will likely only further fuel Indian ire.

Ms Khobragade was detained for allegedly underpaying her domestic helper, who is also an Indian national, and for lying on the helper's visa application form. Her case has dominated the Indian press in recent days, and India has denounced her arrest while she was dropping her children off at school as "humiliating", launching a series of retaliatory measures against US diplomats in New Delhi.

State Department deputy spokesman Marie Harf admitted it was a "sensitive issue" but insisted it was a "separate and isolated incident" which should not "be tied together" and allowed to affect broader "close" US-Indian ties.

While the State Department is reviewing if all the correct procedures were followed, Ms Harf stressed that the Indian embassy in Washington had been informed of the allegations against the consular official as long ago as September.

As a consular official, Ms Khobragade does not have full diplomatic immunity, but has consular immunity, which "only applies to things done in the actual functions of one's job", Ms Harf added. The diplomat had been arrested by the State Department's diplomatic security bureau, and then handed over to the US Marshals Service (USMS) to be processed through the court system.

In a statement, the Marshals confirmed she had been strip-searched and "was subject to the same search procedures as other USMS arrestees held within the general prisoner population in the Southern District of New York". Although it did not confirm reports that Ms Khobragade was placed with drug addicts, the statement added that she was held in a cell with other female detainees.

"Absent a special risk or separation order, prisoners are typically placed in the general population," the Marshals statement said, adding she had been put in an "available and appropriate cell".

Ms Khobragade was released on a bond the same day, and after a review of her case the US Marshals found that the service had "handled Khobragade's intake and detention in accordance with USMS policy directives and protocols".

"All indications are that appropriate procedures were followed. But nonetheless... we understand this is a very sensitive issue, and we're continuing to review exactly what transpired," Ms Harf told journalists on Tuesday.

But the Indian government retaliated by ordering a range of measures, including that US consular officials return the ID cards issued by India's Ministry of External Affairs that speed up travel into and through India, New Delhi foreign ministry sources said.

Tow-trucks and mechanical diggers were also seen taking away the heavy barriers which control traffic from the streets around the US embassy in New Delhi, raising fears for the safety of personnel.

Embassy security is of particular concern to Washington, after its mission in Benghazi, Libya, was overrun last year in a militant attack in which the ambassador and three other Americans were killed. Under international treaties, the host nation is responsible for ensuring the security of foreign missions on its soil, and Ms Harf urged the Indian government to meet its obligations to protect US diplomats.

"We'll continue to work with India to ensure that all of our diplomats and consular officers are being afforded full rights and protections," she said.

"The United States and India enjoy a broad and deep friendship, and this isolated episode is not indicative of the close and mutually respectful ties we share," Ms Harf said in an earlier statement.

The case is the latest involving alleged mistreatment of domestic workers by wealthy Indian families. Many are poorly paid in India, and rights groups regularly report cases of beating and other abuse.

But the arrest also touches a number of hot buttons in India, where fear of public humiliation, particularly among the middle and upper classes, resonates deeply, and pay and conditions for servants is kept mostly private.

With general elections just months away in India, both the ruling Congress party and the main opposition are keen not to be seen to be too lenient with the United States over the issue.