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HindustanTimes Sun,20 Apr 2014

US confirms Devyani was strip-searched after arrest; seeks to defuse growing row with India

Yashwant Raj and Agencies, Hindustan Times  Washington, December 18, 2013
First Published: 08:13 IST(18/12/2013) | Last Updated: 11:41 IST(18/12/2013)

The US on Tuesday confirmed diplomat Devyani Khobragade was strip-searched and kept in a cell with other inmates, adding that it hoped to prevent the episode from harming ties with India.

“We don’t want this to negatively impact our bilateral relationship, and we’ll keep talking it with them,” said state department spokesperson Marie Harf.

That may be somewhat difficult at this juncture, given the outrage felt in India at the “barbaric” manner in which the diplomat marched off handcuffed, and then strip-searched.

The US is not backing down on the arrest or the manner in which it was carried out, though it did say the incident is being reviewed.

“There are no indications that anything but appropriate measures were followed,” Harf said.

“But we do know this is sensitive. We are looking into it for exactly that reason, to see exactly what transpired.”

In an email to colleagues, Khobragade said she repeatedly told arresting authorities that she had diplomatic immunity only to suffer repeated searches as well as being jailed with "common criminals".

"I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity," she said in the email published on the Times of India's website on Wednesday.

"I got the strength to regain composure and remain dignified thinking that I must represent all of my colleagues and my country with confidence and pride," she said.

In the email, Khobragade implored the Indian government to ensure her safety and that of her children and preserve the dignity of the Indian diplomatic service which was "unquestionably under siege".

Khobragade, 39-year-old deputy consul general at the consulate in New York, was arrested last Thursday on charges of visa fraud. She was released on the same day on $250,000 bond.

The US Marshals Service (USMS) confirmed in a statement on Tuesday Khobragade was strip-searched in their custody. But, it insisted, so are all others.

“Yes, Devyani Khobragade was subject to the same search procedures as other USMS arrestees,” the USMC said in reply to a question if she was strip-searched.

The USMC also said the Indian diplomat was kept in a cell with other inmates awaiting court proceedings. They may have included drug-addicts, but it did not specify.

“Devyani Khobragade was placed in the available and appropriate cell. Absent of a special risk or separation order, prisoners are typically placed in general population.”

But Khobragade’s detention was on review found to have been “in accordance with USMS Policy Directives and Protocols”, said the agency charged with housing federal prisoners.

At the same time, the state department said it expected India to fulfill its obligations under the Vienna Convention regarding the security for its missions and diplomats there.

India on Tuesday withdrew a bunch of special privileges and security measures accorded to US diplomats and missions in India.

Read | Vienna Convention open to varied interpretations

Read | Punish US diplomats with same sex companions: Yashwant Sinha

Read | Khobragade’s non-official duties not covered by diplomatic immunity: US

“The safety and security of our diplomats and consular officers in the field is a top priority,” said Harf, adding, “We’ll continue to work with India to ensure that all of our diplomats and consular officers are being afforded full rights and protections.”

“Also, of course, safety and security of our facilities as well is something we take very seriously, and we’ll keep working with the Indians on that.”

Senior officials on both sides were in constant touch, with undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman leading the US team. Secretary of state John Kerry is aware of the issue too.

Indian embassy charge d’affaires Taranjit Singh Sandhu in Washington and officials at India's ministry of external affairs are keeping a tab on the matter.

Read:  India withdraws 'special courtesies' accorded to US diplomats

Read | Indian diplomat's father says NY arrest 'barbaric'

The state department also said the action against Khobragade was not entirely unexpected, the mission had been made aware of it in September, when her domestic help complained to the authorities.

She had alleged that Khobragade underpaid her, after promising her local US wages, in an undertaking given to US authorities during the visa process.

After arresting her, state department’s Diplomatic Security handed the diplomat over to the USMC for “intake” and other procedures, essentially to be produced in a court.

(With inputs from AFP)

A bulldozer removes the security barriers in front of the US embassy in New Delhi. (Reuters Photo)
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