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HindustanTimes Thu,28 Aug 2014

Amid hope of UN immunity for diplomat, India tries to calm tempers

Yashwant Raj and Agencies, Hindustan Times  New Delhi/Washington, December 21, 2013
First Published: 11:55 IST(21/12/2013) | Last Updated: 17:07 IST(21/12/2013)

External affairs minister Salman Khurshid on Saturday said India and the US are in talks to resolve the standoff over the alleged mistreatment of an Indian envoy and both sides would not want their close ties to be hurt by this “one incident”.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an event at the industry chamber FICCI, Khurshid said that the ongoing “conversation” between India and the US to resolve the row over the treatment meted out to India's deputy consul general in New York should be allowed to come to its “logical conclusion”.

“Let the conversation go to its logical conclusion… my conversation (with the US) is not completed,” Khurshid said to questions on what India and US are doing to resolve the standoff, especially after the US said it would not dilute its legal stand on Khobragade, who has been charged with visa fraud and underpaying her nanny.

Meanwhile, commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma said the diplomat row would not impact commercial ties between the two countries.

Read: Khobragade's transfer to UN mission won't save her, US tells India

Read: India has other options to get diplomat out

Read: Protests for Sangeeta Richard in New York; against US in Chennai

“India was outraged over the treatment given to Devyani but our relationship with the US is far too important. It is a strategic partnership between the two largest democracies of the world. Strategic in every sense, so we are not disengaging. This relationship will go stronger,” Sharma said.

Police detain a student during their protest march to American Consulate against the alleged ill-treatment meted out to Devyani Khobragade in the US. (PTI photo)

The bilateral trade between India and the US has risen to $61.35 billion in 2012-13 from $58.19 billion in 2011-12.

“In mature democracies, issues get addressed. Issues are not allowed to cast an ominous shadow on what is truly a building partnership,” he said.

Read: India applies to UN to try to solve diplomat crisis

Read: US media deplores India's 'misplaced rage'

Angry over handcuffing and strip search of Khobragade the government has retaliated strongly by initiating a series of reprisal steps to strip US diplomats and their families of privileges including withdrawing of all airport passes and stopping import clearances for the embassy.

India said on Saturday it had transferred the diplomat at the centre of a row with the United States to its UN delegation, a move that it hopes will give her protection from prosecution for visa fraud and underpaying a maid.

Whether the accreditation of Devyani Khobragade as a member of India's UN mission leads to a way out of the dispute could depend on the US state department approving her transfer.

Asoke Mukherji, India's ambassador to the United Nations, said he had written to secretary-general Ban Ki-moon informing him of the 39-year-old diplomat's transfer.

Read: Sangeeta was exploited; wrong to blame her, says lawyer

Read: A timeline of events emerging since the arrest of Indian diplomat

Khobragade was arrested on December 12 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 her housekeeper, also an Indian.

Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade's father Uttam Khobragade with RPI chief Ramdas Athavale during a press conference in Mumbai. (PTI photo)

Mukherji said that once Khobragade receives her diplomatic card at the UN she would be eligible for greater privileges, including diplomatic protection from arrest.

"We have welcomed her into our team here at the UN. I have had a meeting with her," Mukherji said. "As soon as she is accredited, we hope she will be able to discharge her responsibilities."

The US on Friday said Khobragade's transfer to the UN will not give her diplomatic immunity retroactively and the visa fraud case against her would remain.

HT Blog: Its open season for all on Devyani

"Receiving diplomatic immunity does not nullify any previously existing criminal charges. Those remain on the books. Nor does obtaining diplomatic immunity protect the diplomat from prosecution indefinitely. It relates to the status of a diplomat's current status for the length of the time of that status," said state department spokesperson Jen Psaki.

It may, however, protect her from additional charges in that case for the duration of her posting to the UN, or any other diplomatic position in the US with full immunity.

At the New York consulate, Khobragade enjoyed truncated immunity covering her actions in the conduct of her duty as a consular official under an international convention.

Supporters of CPI scuffle with cops during a protest against Indian diplomat's arrest in US, near the American Center in New Delhi. (Reuters photo)

After her transfer to the UN, she will be entitled to full immunity the process for which got under way formally with an application for UN accreditation.

That should be easy to get as the UN cannot and does not decide how its member nations staff their respective missions. The US can and does grant or refuse visas under category G-1.

Technically, the US can void the transfer by denying her a visa, but that may amount to ratcheting up tensions when both countries appear keen to dial down the crisis.

Asked whether a change in her diplomatic immunity status could prevent Khobragade from being arrested again or enable her to leave the United States, Psaki said, "I don't want to speculate on that."

She said any change in the diplomat's accreditation status would not provide a "clean slate from past charges."

But India and Khobragade's lawyer believe that her new diplomatic immunity, when conferred on her, will protect her retroactively from the visa fraud case.

According to her lawyer, Daniel Arshack, it will not only prevent her prosecution in the case and but also make a judge drop it altogether.

This appears to be new ground for both countries, and a lot remains unclear or publicly unsaid, in the backdrop of a criminal case, which the administration had said will not be dropped.

Video: Don't want US ties spoilt by one incident, says Khurshid


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