India demands that US drop charges
of visa fraud against diplomat

Plea comes after Secretary of State Kerry offers regrets

Protesters burn an American flag poster on Thursday in Mumbai.
Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

India's foreign minister demanded Thursday that the United States drop a visa fraud case against a diplomat who was arrested and strip-searched in New York City last week, saying she was the victim of a blackmail attempt by her housekeeper.

The case has sparked a diplomatic furor between the United States and India, which is incensed over what its officials describe as degrading treatment of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York.

The U.S. Marshals Service confirmed it strip-searched Khobragade after her arrest, but denied her claim that she underwent a cavity search.  

Khobragade, 39, is accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her Manhattan housekeeper Sangeeta Richard, an Indian national. According to prosecutors, Khobragade claimed she paid the woman $4,500 a month, but actually paid her only around $3 per hour. 

In a statement Thursday, Richard's lawyer said her client was "frustrated" by the way that Khobragade had been protrayed as the victim.

The case has sparked widespread outrage in India, where the idea of an educated, upper-class woman facing a strip search is almost unheard of, except in the most extraordinary crimes. In the U.S., the case touches a nerve in part because there has been a series of controversies involving Indians exploiting domestic workers.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed regret over the incident, even as Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Khobragade was treated well and questioned why there was more sympathy for the diplomat than for the housekeeper.

On Thursday, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid took issue with the entire premise of the case and accused the housekeeper of blackmail. He told reporters that she had threatened over the summer to go to the police unless Khobragade arranged a new passport for her, along with a work visa and a large sum of money.

"We need to remember the simple fact that there is only one victim in this case," Khurshid said. "That victim is Devyani Khobragade — a serving Indian diplomat on mission in the United States."

Khurshid did not say how much money the housekeeper allegedly demanded. But two top Indian officials said she asked for $10,000 in the presence of an immigration lawyer and two other witnesses. Both officials have knowledge of the case, but spoke on condition that their names not be published because of the sensitivity of the case.

Khurshid also said the U.S. attorney had ignored the fact that a legal case was already underway in India in the dispute between the housekeeper and the diplomat. Khobragade notified authorities in New York and Delhi over the summer that she was being blackmailed, and Delhi police launched a case against the woman, Indian officials said.

"When the legal process in another friendly and democratic country is interfered with in this manner, it not only amounts to interference, but also raises the serious concern of calling into question the very legal system of that country," said Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the External Affairs Ministry.

Khobragade's case has chilled U.S.-Indian relations, and India has revoked privileges for U.S. diplomats in protest. Khurshid said he would speak to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Kerry called Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon and voiced his regret about Khobragade's case.

"This is an extremely distressing and hurtful incident that needs to be addressed," Khurshid said. "We hope our concerns will be addressed. And if the U.S. has any concerns that we need to address, we will examine them."

Khurshid said India did not want to sour relations with the U.S. over the issue, but would insist on the return of its diplomat and the dropping of charges against her. "We are keen that no damage of an irreversible nature should happen to our relationship," he said.

Khobragade could face a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration if convicted of those U.S. charges. She has said she has full diplomatic immunity. The Department of State disputes that, saying her immunity is limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. Her work status Thursday was unclear.

In New York, Indian Consulate spokesman Venkatasamy Perumal said Khobragade was transferred this week to India's U.N. mission, but he declined to comment further, and requests for comment from the U.N. officials were not immediately returned.

India has retaliated against U.S. diplomats in India with measures that included revoking ID cards, demanding to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in U.S. Embassy households, and withdrawing import licenses that allowed the commissary at the U.S. Embassy to import alcohol and food.

Having a live-in maid or part-time domestic help is common in Indian households, even among the lower and middle classes. A salary of $3 an hour, or around $24 for an eight-hour day, is more than what a well-paid maid would earn in a big city such as Mumbai.

Typical salaries for full-time, live-in maids range from $100 to $150 per month, with most families also offering food, clothes and medical assistance. The average per capita income in India is $1,530 a year.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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