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Diplomat row turns bitter: US envoy headed home after being expelled

Devyani Khobragade’s return seems to have widened the rift between the two sides, with India asking US — only the second time ever — to remove an officer from its embassy in Delhi. Khobragade moves US court; claims diplomatic immunity from state department

india Updated: Jan 11, 2014 19:25 IST
HT Correspondents and Agencies
HT Correspondents and Agencies

A US diplomat in New Delhi was headed for home on Saturday after being expelled in a bitter row over an Indian envoy's arrest that has seriously strained ties between the two countries.

"I am really thankful for all your support. My government will speak for me, my lawyers will speak for me," Khobragade, 39, who has left her husband and two children behind in the United States, told reporters Saturday.

Charges against Khobragade will remain pending, which means that if she returns to the US without diplomatic immunity, she will be tried. She is married to an Indian-American and the couple have two children, both US citizens.

Read:Khobragade moves US court; claims diplomatic immunity from state department

Khobragade’s return seems to have widened the rift between the two sides, with India asking Americans — only the second time ever — to remove an officer from its embassy in Delhi.

HT has learnt that the diplomat given “little more than 48 hours” to leave India is Wayne May, a counsellor instrumental in granting visa and helping Richard’s husband and two children’s “evacuation” to the US.

Both Indian and US officials refused to respond to HT’s query about the name of the diplomat, which has not been made public.

The United States said late Friday it deeply regretted India's expulsion of the US embassy official and wanted to mend a partnership that Washington hopes could be a bulwark against China's growing might.

However, India's orders to the US diplomat to leave within 48 hours, just as the row appeared to be cooling, suggested New Delhi was still not in a forgiving mood.

Read: Khobragade logjam over, but show not over

With general elections due by May, politicians have pounced on US actions calling them a violation of national sovereignty and saying the United States should not be allowed to ride roughshod over Indian interests.

Ties have frayed since December 12 when Khobragade, India's deputy consul-general in New York, was arrested on charges of visa fraud involving her domestic servant and lying about how much she paid her.

Read:Top US leadership feels diplomat row 'most stupid thing to do' on their part

She allegedly obtained a visa for her maid by promising to pay her $4,500 a month and then struck a secret deal to pay her Rs 30,000 a month, far below the US minimum wage.

But shortly before her US grand jury indictment on Thursday, Washington granted the Indian officer - who has denied all charges - full diplomatic immunity, allowing her to return.

"Her head is held high. She knows she has done no wrong," Khobragade's lawyer Dan Arshack said.

Read: Charges against me are 'false and baseless', says Devyani

As the diplomat was flying back to New Delhi, India announced it had asked Washington to withdraw an embassy official in a fresh retaliatory measure.

"I can confirm a US official accredited to the mission in India will be leaving his post," US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, said.

The exact timing of his departure from India was unclear as the US embassy was not returning telephone calls.

Read: Happy at Devyani’s return, her father thanks govt, media and public

United States "deeply regrets" expulsion

"We deeply regret the Indian government felt it was necessary to expel one of our diplomatic personnel," Psaki said. "We're looking to move our relationship forward. We're looking to move past this challenging time."

At the same time, Psaki said Khobragade cannot return to the US unless she surrenders to the court.

Devyani Khobragade is seen with her father Uttam Khobragade at Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi. (PTI photo)

Read: Lawyer demands apology for Bharara's wrong statement on whereabouts of Khobragade

The expelled US diplomat was of "similar rank" to Khobragade and is suspected of having helped the maid's family travel to United States.

US prosecutors said the maid's family were evacuated from India because of alleged intimidation attempts, accusations that also riled India.

Khobragade's arrest outside her children's school and treatment in custody, where she was cavity searched, outraged India, which insisted she had diplomatic immunity.

US prosecutors disputed this, contending she was not a ranking embassy official, and filed charges.

India used bulldozers to remove security barriers at the US embassy in New Delhi and even stopped the mission importing duty-free alcohol.

Read: From a missing maid to an indicted diplomat: the Khobragade timeline

Washington views India as a key ally in countering China's regional rise and has invested heavily in improving ties.

In 2010, US President Barack Obama called relations with India "one of defining partnerships of the 21st century".

India has benefited from US backing to gain access to foreign nuclear energy technology.

While Americans took the maid's side, many affluent Indians who pay their servants far less than Khobragade was accused of paying hers, supported the diplomat and viewed her treatment as high-handed superpower behaviour.

Read: US healthcare costly, Devyani warned maid not to get sick

Even traditional US supporters were angered by Washington's actions.

"The US is so good at arm-twisting -- India is just playing their game," the national president of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, Chella Srinivasan, told AFP in a recent interview.

(With inputs from AFP)

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