New turns in row over Indian diplomat's strip search

December 2013 photo shows Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general, during the India Studies Stony Brook University fund raiser event at Long Island, N.Y. AP

Last Updated Dec 19, 2013 6:26 AM EST

NEW DELHI -- India's foreign minister has demanded that the United States drop a case against an Indian diplomat who was strip-searched after being arrested in New York City.

The diplomat, who was accused of paying her housekeeper about $3 dollars an hour, had claimed the woman blackmailed her over the summer, another Indian official said Thursday.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told reporters on Thursday that Khobragade should never have been arrested, and that the housekeeper should have been arrested instead.

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

The U.S. Marshals Service confirmed it had strip-searched Khobragade and placed her in a cell with other female defendants last Thursday, saying the measures are "standard arrestee intake procedures." 

Khobragade was charged with lying on a visa application, saying she paid the housekeeper - an Indian national - $4,500 a month, but actually paid her far below the minimum wage. She pleaded not guilty and was released on $250,000 bail. 

The case has sparked outrage across India, where the idea of an educated, middle-class woman facing a strip-search is almost unimaginable, except in the most brutal crimes.

In an unusual step, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan publicly defended Khobragade's treatment, and questioned why there was more outrage for Khobragade than for the housekeeper. 

On Thursday, an official in India's External Affairs Ministry said Khobragade filed a complaint with New York police and New Delhi police in July, saying the maid had disappeared and was trying to blackmail her. According to the official, the housekeeper said she would not report Khobragade if she agreed to pay her more money and change her visa status to allow her to work elsewhere in the U.S. 

New Delhi police issued a warrant for her arrest if she returned to India, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. 

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 New Delhi or Mumbai. 

Typical salaries for a full time, live-in maid range from $100 to $150 per month, with most families also offering lodging, food, clothes and medical assistance. 

Khobragade's case has chilled U.S.-Indian relations, and India has revoked privileges for U.S. diplomats in protest. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called a top Indian official to express his regret over what happened. "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," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a written statement.

"In his conversation with National Security Adviser Menon, (Secretary Kerry) 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," Harf added.

An expression of regret, in the world of diplomacy, is generally viewed as something short of an outright apology. Harf said Kerry had used the word "regret" in his conversation with Menon, but she declined to elaborate on whether this constituted an apology or to offer greater detail on their discussion.

On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Khobragade was treated very well, even given coffee and offered food while detained. 

"One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country," Bharara said, making the highly unusual move of issuing a lengthy statement addressing issues not in a criminal complaint. "And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?" 

He also said Khobragade was afforded courtesies most Americans wouldn't get - such as being allowed to make phone calls for two hours to arrange child care and sort out personal matters - after she was arrested by U.S. Department of State agents outside her children's Manhattan school. 

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

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 to the U.N. mission's first secretary were not immediately returned. 

Harf said that when such a transfer request is made to the United Nations, the U.N. Secretariat would inform the Department of State. It then would have to be reviewed by appropriate authorities in both places. 

Khobragade's lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said he didn't know what she would be doing at the U.N. mission, but, "I fully expect her to stay in the U.S." 

India retaliated against U.S. diplomats with measures that include revoking diplomat ID cards that brought certain privileges, 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.

India also removed security barriers at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. The barriers would offer some protection against a suicide-bomb attack.

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