New York Arrest and Strip-Search of Female Indian Diplomat Triggers Outrage in India

Thursday, December 19, 2013
Devyani Khobragade (photo: Facebook)

India’s government is outraged over the arrest and treatment of a female diplomat in New York City.


Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York, was arrested last week for allegedly submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her housekeeper and paying the housekeeper far less than the minimum legal wage.


Khobragade was dropping one of her daughters off at school when U.S. Diplomatic Security agents apprehended her in the street, handcuffed her and took her away.


But what really created a furor was Khobragade being strip-searched and allegedly subjected to multiple cavity searches by U.S. marshals. She was also placed in a cell with drug addicts before being released on $250,000 bail.


India’s national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, called such treatment “despicable” and “barbaric.”


The Indian government issued a statement saying it was “shocked and appalled at the manner in which she has been humiliated by the U.S. authorities.”


Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh reportedly lodged a formal protest with the U.S. ambassador to India, Nancy J. Powell, saying the treatment of Khobragade was “unacceptable.”


The rapid skyrocketing of tensions between the U.S. and India prompted Secretary of State John F. Kerry to call India’s national security adviser to “express his regret” and “empathize with the sensitivities we are hearing from India,” according to the U.S. Department of State. A department spokesperson pointed out that it was not an apology.


New Delhi police retaliated by removing security barriers from outside the American Embassy. Additionally, Indian officials made a series of demands to the embassy—that it provide details about all the Indians it employs and the names and salaries of all American Embassy School teachers, return all diplomatic ID cards, and stop importing liquor to the embassy commissary.


A visiting U.S. Congressional delegation that attempted to meet with Indian politicians to discuss the international crisis was turned away.


India also transferred Khobragade to a post at the United Nations, where she would be afforded greater diplomatic protections.


“I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity,” Khobragade wrote in an e-mail to her Indian diplomatic colleagues that was released by The Washington Post.


Back in the U.S., the Marshals Service confirmed that Khobragade was strip-searched in accordance with “the same search procedures” used for other arrestees.


Federal prosecutors said Khobragade was charged because she only paid her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, $573 a month, after promising her a salary of $4,500 a month. The housekeeper was also forced to work far more than 40 hours a week, prosecutors say.


Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, defended the decision to prosecute Khobragade. In a statement released on Wednesday, he said, “One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country. One wonders even more pointedly whether any government would not take action regarding that alleged conduct where the purpose of the scheme was to unfairly treat a domestic worker in ways that violate the law. And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?”


The charges filed against Khobragade, to which she pleaded not guilty and claimed diplomatic immunity, carry maximum sentences of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for having made a false declaration to the government about the housekeeper’s salary.


Khobragade, who is married with two daughters, has held diplomatic posts in Germany, Italy and Pakistan.

- Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

U.S. Prosecutor Defends Arrest of Indian Diplomat (by Benjamin Weiser and Michael R. Gordon, New York Times)

Outrage in India, and Retaliation, Over a Female Diplomat’s Arrest in New York (by Gardiner Harris, New York Times)

Arrest of Indian Diplomat in New York Sparks U.S.-India Tensions (by Annie Gowen, Washington Post)

Supreme Court Rules Jailers Correct in Strip-Searching Anti-War Nun (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Samoan Diplomat Sues Immigration Officials over False Imprisonment  (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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