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Indian official: Diplomat's arrest in NYC barbaric

Tuesday - 12/17/2013, 7:44pm  ET

Indian police remove barricades that had been erected as a safety measure outside the main entrance of U.S Embassy, reportedly in retaliation to the alleged mistreatment of New York-based Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. The arrest and strip search of the Indian diplomat escalated into a major diplomatic furor Tuesday as India's national security adviser called the woman's treatment "despicable and barbaric." (AP Photo) INDIA OUT

NIRMALA GEORGE
Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) -- The arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York City escalated into a major diplomatic furor Tuesday as India's national security adviser called the woman's treatment "despicable and barbaric."

Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, is accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her Manhattan housekeeper. Indian officials said she was arrested and handcuffed Thursday as she dropped off her daughter at school, and was kept in a cell with drug addicts before posting $250,000 bail.

In a statement, the U.S. Marshals Service confirmed that Khobragade was subjected to the same booking procedures as other prisoners, including being strip searched -- viewed in India as the most disturbing part of the arrest -- and locked up with other female defendants.

Khobragade "was placed in the available and appropriate cell," the statement said. "Absent a special risk or separation order, prisoners are typically placed in general population," the statement said.

Earlier Tuesday, her U.S. attorney said he didn't know if she was strip-searched. Federal authorities said they were looking into the arrest.

"We understand that this is a sensitive issue for many in India," said Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokeswoman. "Accordingly, we are looking into the intake procedures surrounding this arrest to ensure that all appropriate procedures were followed and every opportunity for courtesy was extended."

Harf said that federal authorities would work on the issue with India "in the spirit of partnership and cooperation that marks our broad bilateral relationship."

"We certainly don't want this to affect the relationship," she said.

India was ready to retaliate against American diplomats in India by threatening to downgrade privileges and demanding information about how much they pay their Indian household staff, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

Police also removed the traffic barricades near the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, a demand by the Indian government in retaliation for Khobragade's treatment, PTI reported. The barriers were a safety measure.

"We got orders to remove the concrete barriers," said Amardeep Sehgal, station house officer of the Chanakyapuri police station, the one nearest the embassy. "They were obstructing traffic on the road." He refused to say who had given the orders.

Calls to the U.S. Embassy were not immediately returned Tuesday.

But Harf said the U.S. had made clear to the India government that it needs to uphold its obligations under the Vienna Conventions on diplomatic and consular relations. She said the U.S. takes the safety and security of its diplomats very seriously.

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon slammed Khobragade's treatment in New York.

"It is despicable and barbaric," he said.

Prosecutors in New York say Khobragade, 39, claimed she paid her Indian maid $4,500 per month but actually paid her less than the U.S. minimum wage. In order for diplomats and consular officers to get a visa for their personal employees, known as an A-3 visa, they must show proof that the applicant will receive a fair wage, comparable to employment in the U.S., U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement last week.

Federal prosecutors say Khobragade told the housekeeper she would be paid 30,000 rupees per month - about $573, or $3.31 per hour. The woman worked for the family from about November 2012 through June 2013, and said she worked far more than 40 hours per week and was paid even less than 30,000 rupees, prosecutors said.

Khobragade has pleaded not guilty and plans to challenge the arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity, her lawyer said last week.

If convicted, Khobragade faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration. She was arrested outside of her daughter's Manhattan school.

"We are distressed at the treatment that Dr. Khobragade has received at the hands of U.S. authorities," said her lawyer, Daniel Arshack. He said she should have diplomatic immunity.

Her case quickly became a major story in India, with politicians urging diplomatic retaliation and TV news channels showing the woman in a series of smiling family photos.

That reaction may look outsized in the United States, but the case touches on a string of issues that strike deeply in India, where the fear of public humiliation resonates strongly and heavy-handed treatment by the police is normally reserved for the poor. For an educated, middle-class woman to face public arrest and a strip search is almost unimaginable, except in the most brutal crimes.

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