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Indian diplomat 'broke down' after strip-search, arrest in US

US officials have admitted that they strip-searched the Indian diplomat after she was arrested in New York in a new twist to a growing row that has seen India hit back with reprisals such as removing security barriers around the US embassy. Vienna Convention open to varied interpretations

india Updated: Dec 18, 2013 14:45 IST

Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who was arrested last week on charges of visa fraud in New York, in an email to her foreign service colleagues has said that she "broke down many times" and faced "repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches."

As the case escalated into a diplomatic storm between the United States and India, politicians across party lines condemned her public arrest and have demanded that the government keep up the pressure on America.

"Government will make a statement on diplomat's arrest in US," said commerce minister Anand Sharma.

Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York, wrote in the email that 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.

"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".

An Indian official with direct knowledge of the case confirmed the email was authentic.

US officials did admit on Tuesday that they strip-searched Khobragade after she was arrested in New York in a new twist to a growing row that has seen India hit back with reprisals such as removing security barriers around the US embassy.

The US state department sought to calm tensions saying her arrest was an isolated case, and should not be allowed to damage the close ties between India and the United States.

But confirmation from the US Marshals service that Khobragade was treated like any person detained in the bustling metropolis will likely only further fuel Indian ire.

State department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf admitted it was a "sensitive issue" but insisted it was a "separate and isolated incident" which should not "be tied together" and allowed to affect broader "close" US-Indian ties.

While the state department is reviewing if all the correct procedures were followed, Harf stressed that the Indian embassy in Washington had been informed of the allegations against the consular official as long ago as September.

As a consular official, Khobragade does not have full diplomatic immunity, but has consular immunity which "only applies to things done in the actual functions of one's job," Harf added.

The diplomat had been arrested by the State Department's diplomatic security bureau, and then handed over to the US Marshals Service (USMS) to be processed through the court system.

In a statement, the Marshals confirmed she had been strip-searched and "was subject to the same search procedures as other USMS arrestees held within the general prisoner population in the Southern District of New York."

Although it did not confirm reports that Khobragade was placed with drug addicts, the statement added that she was held in a cell with other female detainees.

"Absent a special risk or separation order, prisoners are typically placed in the general population," the Marshals statement said, adding she had been put in an "available and appropriate cell."

Khobragade was released on a bond the same day, and after a review of her case the US Marshals found that the service had "handled Khobragade's intake and detention in accordance with USMS policy directives and protocols."

"All indications are that appropriate procedures were followed. But nonetheless. We understand this is a very sensitive issue, and we're continuing to review exactly what transpired," Harf told journalists on Tuesday.

But the Indian government retaliated by ordering a range of measures including that US consular officials return the ID cards issued by the ministry of external affairs that speed up travel into and through India.

Tow-trucks and mechanical diggers were also seen taking away the heavy barriers which control traffic from the streets around the US embassy in New Delhi, raising fears for the safety of personnel.

Under international treaties, the host nation is responsible for ensuring the security of foreign missions on its soil, and Harf urged the Indian government to meet its obligations to protect US diplomats.

"We'll continue to work with India to ensure that all of our diplomats and consular officers are being afforded full rights and protections," she said.

"The United States and India enjoy a broad and deep friendship, and this isolated episode is not indicative of the close and mutually respectful ties we share," Harf said in an earlier statement.

The case is the latest involving alleged mistreatment of domestic workers by wealthy Indian families. Many are poorly paid in India and rights groups regularly report cases of beating and other abuse.

But the arrest also touches a number of hot buttons in India, where fear of public humiliation, particularly among the middle and upper classes, resonates deeply, and pay and conditions for servants is kept mostly private.

With general elections just months away in India, both the ruling Congress party and the main opposition are keen not to be seen to be too lenient with the United States over the issue.

Read |Vienna Convention open to varied interpretations

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

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

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

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

First Published: Dec 18, 2013 12:27 IST