India orders US to withdraw diplomat as row festers

Supporters of Rashtrawadi Shiv Sena, a Hindu hardline group, carry placards during a protest near the U.S. embassy in New Delhi after the arrest of Indian diplomat Dr Devyani Khobragade. -- PHOTO:REUTERS
Supporters of Rashtrawadi Shiv Sena, a Hindu hardline group, carry placards during a protest near the U.S. embassy in New Delhi after the arrest of Indian diplomat Dr Devyani Khobragade. -- PHOTO:REUTERS

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - The United States said on Friday it would withdraw one of its diplomats from New Delhi at India's request after Washington effectively expelled an Indian envoy at the centre of a dispute between the countries.

Dr Devyani Khobragade, 39, who was India's deputy consul-general in New York, was arrested in December on charges of visa fraud and lying to US authorities about what she paid her housekeeper. Dr Khobragade's arrest angered Indians amid disclosures she was handcuffed and strip-searched.

Dr Khobragade arrived in New Delhi on Friday night and was met by her father, Mr Uttam Khobragade. She left the airport terminal through a side entrance out of sight of reporters and TV crews. "Her words to me were, 'Papa I love you,'" her father told reporters.

Shortly afterward, the US State Department said it would recall a US diplomat, whom it did not identify, at India's request. "This has clearly been a challenging time in the US-India relationship. We expect and hope that this will now come to closure and the Indians will take significant steps with us to improve our relationship and return it to a more constructive place," department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington.

The monthlong dispute has soured the broader US-India relationship, leading to reprisals against American diplomats in New Delhi and the postponement of visits to India by US officials and another by a US business delegation.

The deal allowing Dr Khobragade to return to India had been expected to help mend the rift, but there was no sign, in the short term at least, that India was ready to forgive and forget.

"We called the US mission to withdraw an officer of similar rank of Dr Devyani as reciprocal action," said an Indian official with knowledge of the decision. The official told reporters the government believed the US diplomat had a role in the Dr Khobragade case. The official did not give more details.

It will take time to dispel the bad feelings built up between New Delhi and Washington. With national elections due in India by May, political parties have seized on the case and labeled it an attack on national sovereignty.

Tit-for-tat withdrawals of embassy staff are common when countries become locked in diplomatic disputes.

Incensed by the treatment of Khobragade, India removed some security barriers near the US Embassy and reduced the number of embassy staff with diplomatic immunity. On Wednesday, it ordered the embassy to close a club frequented by American expatriates and other foreign residents.

During the crisis, both New Delhi and Washington repeatedly stressed the importance of their partnership, which includes US$100 billion (S$126 billion) of annual trade.

But the case dragged on until a breakthrough on Thursday when prosecutors announced that a federal grand jury in New York had indicted Dr Khobragade for visa fraud and lying about how much she paid her housekeeper. Dr Khobragade had already been transferred to India's UN mission and granted a higher level of diplomatic immunity.

Many Indians felt the case was an example of the United States taking its friendship with India for granted and they supported the government's tough stand. Middle-class Indians sympathized more with Dr Khobragade than with her housekeeper, who US authorities say was overworked and underpaid.

Indian political circles are calling Dr Khobragade a hero, with one party in her home state of Maharashtra saying it would talk to her about running for parliament.

Mr Ron Somers, president of the US-India Business Council, called the affair "deeply regrettable." "The US-India relationship is strategic to both countries, and is simply too important to allow it to be degraded or side-tracked," he said in Washington.

The indictment accused Dr Khobragade of coaching the maid, Ms Sangeeta Richard, to mislead US officials, and of confiscating her passport and making her work 100-hour, seven-day weeks.

Dr Khobragade denies all charges and has been backed by her government. Dr Khobragade's lawyer Daniel Arshack said on Thursday she would leave with her head "held high." The foreign ministry in New Delhi said in a statement: "At the time of her departure for India, Counsellor Khobragade reiterated her innocence on charges filed against her.

"She also affirmed her determination to ensure that the episode would not leave a lasting impact on her family, in particular, her children, who are still in the United States." Her father, Mr Uttam Khobragade, said she rejected a plea bargain to be allowed to stay in the United States. If the diplomat had reached a settlement with her housekeeper, he said, the charges would have been dropped, but she decided against it.

"Devyani said this amounts to compromising the sovereignty of the country," Mr Uttam Khobragade said, noting that the dispute with the housekeeper was being dealt with by Indian courts. Khobragade risks arrest if she returns to the United States.

Her husband and children, who are US citizens, are expected to follow her to India shortly, her father said. "Upon her departure, a warrant may be issued for her arrest and should she seek to enter the United States she could be arrested," a US diplomatic note said.

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