(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State John Kerry was pulled into an increasingly heated diplomatic row after an Indian consular official working in New York was arrested, strip searched, and accused of paying a housemaid slave wages.
The treatment of India’s Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade has infuriated India and Wednesday a spokesman for Kerry said he “empathizes” with the woman and “expressed his regret.”
“As a father of two daughters about the same age as Devyani Khobragade, the secretary empathizes with the sensitivities we are hearing from India about the events that unfolded after Ms. Khobragade’s arrest, and in his conversation with National Security Adviser Menon he expressed his regret, as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India,” the State Department said in a statement Wednesday.
Kerry struck the conciliatory tone after Khobragade was handcuffed last Thursday by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service which placed the diplomat in a “general population” cell alongside drug addicts.
The marshals concede she was strip searched, which is standard for inmates.
“It was truly by the book,” said a spokeswoman for the Marshals.
Khobragade is accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for an Indian woman working as her housemaid in her New York City home. Federal prosecutors accuse Khobragade of filing documents saying she would pay the woman $4,500 a month, but instead paid her only $573 a month, a paltry $3.31 an hour, well below the U.S. minimum wage.
Khobragade said through a lawyer, and in an email published today in India, that she was protected from prosecution under diplomatic immunity. She claims she was unlawfully arrested and searched.
She appeared in court last week when she pleaded not guilty to the charges. She was released on $250,000 bond.
The arrest raised the ire of Indian politicians that the female diplomat was strip searched and jailed with common criminals. In retaliation, they called for an investigation into the salaries of Indian domestics working in the homes of U.S. diplomats assigned to India. In addition, police today also removed the anti-terror barriers outside the U.S. embassy in Delhi, a move many saw as retaliatory.
The State Department maintains that Khobragade does not have fully diplomatic immunity, but only consular immunity from prosecution with respect to acts she performs as part of her job.
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Chandrika Narayan, CNN
Frank Pallotta, CNN
Sheena Jones, CNN