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U.S. Attorney Bharara Defends India Diplomat Strip-Search

By Kartikay Mehrotra and Andrew MacAskill
December 19, 2013 2:16 AM EST 201 Comments
Indian Official Devyani Khobragade
Indian Official Devyani Khobragade

The U.S. prosecutor who triggered an uproar with India over the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade last week defended the charges and strip-search, saying she knowingly tried to evade U.S. law.

“It is true that she was fully searched by a female Deputy Marshal -- in a private setting -- when she was brought into the U.S. Marshals’ custody, but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not, in order to make sure that no prisoner keeps anything on his person that could harm anyone, including himself,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a three-page statement yesterday. “This is in the interests of everyone’s safety.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday sought to mend ties with India over the incident, expressing his regret in a call to Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon to convey “his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India,” the State Department said in a statement. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described her arrest as “deplorable.”

Mounting tensions threaten to damage what has otherwise been a decade of collaboration between the world’s two biggest democracies as they deepen trade and defense ties and strengthen cooperation to fight terrorism. India removed concrete security barricades outside of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, canceled airport passes for American diplomats and froze import requests to retaliate over Khobragade’s arrest.

‘Unprecedented Treatment’

“This is unprecedented treatment of an Indian diplomat; a slap in the face to the country,” said G. Parthasarathy, a retired Indian diplomat posted in Washington during former President Jimmy Carter’s administration. “Over the last two decades the public perception of the U.S. has been very positive. The transformation has been remarkable, and that will be hurt.”

While Kerry said that foreign diplomats in the U.S. should be “accorded respect and dignity just as we expect our own diplomats should receive overseas,” he stopped short of an apology and stressed the importance of enforcing U.S. laws. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said yesterday that the U.S. has “conveyed at high levels to the government of India our expectations” that American diplomats will be protected.

Bharara, who won the largest insider trading case in U.S. history last month, said Khobragade submitted a false visa application for an employee who was to work as her housekeeper and babysitter, and paid her “far below” minimum wage. He called legal action initiated against the housekeeper in India an attempt to silence her.

Food, Coffee

“There can be no plausible claim that this case was somehow unexpected or an injustice,” Bharara, a U.S. citizen who was born in India, said in the statement. “This Office’s sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law -- no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are.”

Bharara said Khobragade was given courtesies not normally accorded to other defendants and wasn’t arrested in front of her children as had been reported. He said agents let her make phone calls from a car for about two hours, brought her coffee and offered to get her food.

Khobragade, who works in India’s consulate general in New York, was arrested in front of her daughter’s school on Dec. 12 and then strip-searched while in the custody of U.S. Marshals at a federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, according to Daniel Arshack, her lawyer. She was presented before a U.S. magistrate judge and released later the same day.

‘Embarrassing Failure’

“Dr. Khobragade is protected from prosecution by virtue of her diplomatic status,” Arshack said in an e-mail, calling the incident “a significant error in judgment and an embarrassing failure of U.S. international protocol.”

Khobragade, who also had the title of diplomat for women’s affairs, has been transferred to a position at India’s United Nations mission in New York from her consular role to give her great diplomatic immunity, the Press Trust of India reported yesterday, without citing anyone for the information. Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. hasn’t received the required notification of such a transfer.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told India’s parliament yesterday that Khobragade’s housekeeper-babysitter blackmailed her for money and U.S. legal residency. Khobragade’s pleas for help to the New York Police Department were never taken seriously, he said.

“Our sense as a nation, as a people and as human beings is that what has happened is totally and entirely unacceptable,” Khurshid said. “I will bring her back and restore her dignity. I will do it and show you all.”

The visa fraud charge against Khobragade carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, if she’s convicted, according to Bharara’s office. The maximum for the false statements charge is five years.

She was required to surrender her travel documents and ordered to remain in the U.S. She was barred from contacting the employee, whom prosecutors referred to in their complaint as “Witness-1.”

The case is U.S. v. Khobragade, 13-mj-02870, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

To contact the reporters on this story: Kartikay Mehrotra in New Delhi at kmehrotra2@bloomberg.net; Andrew MacAskill in New Delhi at amacaskill@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

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