U.S. diplomats, but not prosecutors, seek to quell India dispute
By David Ingram and Tabassum Zakaria (Reuters)
December 20, 2013, 2:48 pm TWN
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government sought to present a united front on Thursday and play down any signs of a rift between the State Department and law enforcement officials over how to handle the politically sensitive case of an Indian diplomat subjected to a strip search over alleged visa fraud.
The arrest has enraged India, which demanded that charges be dropped against the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade. New Delhi has also demanded the arrest of the housekeeper, also an Indian national, who had accused her of fraud and underpayment of wages.
In an unusual move, the United States flew the family of the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, out of India. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said attempts had been made in India to "silence" Richard and compel her to return home.
"It needs to be asked what right a foreign government has to 'evacuate' Indian citizens from India while cases are pending against them in the Indian legal system," an Indian foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday.
Before the diplomatic blow-up on Saturday, relations between the two countries had been seen as cordial and improving.
While the U.S. State Department attempted to tamp down the furor in India, U.S. prosecutors showed no signs they would drop their case against Khobragade. In a strongly worded statement on Wednesday, Bharara defended the investigation and treatment of Khobragade.
His statement came just hours after Secretary of State John Kerry called India's national security adviser to express regret about Khobragade's treatment.
On Thursday, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh to again stress the importance of the U.S.-Indian ties and to pledge to work through the complex issues of the case.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denied suggestions that the department was pressuring U.S. law enforcement to drop the case. "Not true," she told reporters.
Khobragade was arrested last week and released on $250,000 bail after giving up her passport and pleading not guilty to charges of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid Richard. She faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted of both counts.
The U.S. Justice Department confirmed that Khobragade was strip-searched after her arrest. A senior Indian government source has said the interrogation also included a cavity search, although U.S. officials have denied this.
Some tension between the State Department and the Justice Department is expected, because one is focused on international law and security while the other attempts to investigate alleged crimes without interference, said John Bellinger, who has held senior positions in both departments.
"Whether it was wise policy to actually arrest and detain someone for a non-violent crime like this, even if technically permissible under the Vienna Convention, is questionable to me. It's really quite surprising," said Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser and now a private lawyer at the firm Arnold & Porter.
The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations gives consular staff such as Khobragade limited but not absolute protection against prosecution.