India transfers diplomat to UN amid US tensions

Sanjeev Miglani

India said it transferred a diplomat to its UN delegation in an attempt to protect her from prosecution for visa fraud and underpaying a maid.

Students protest against the alleged ill-treatment of Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, outside the American Consulate Office at Bandra-Kurla Complex, India. (Getty)

Whether the accreditation of Devyani Khobragade as a member of India's UN mission leads to a way out of the dispute could depend on the US State Department approving her transfer. Asoke Mukherji, India's ambassador to the UN, said he had written to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon informing him of the 39-year-old diplomat's transfer.

The world's two largest democracies have been at loggerheads for the past week, amid mounting outrage in India over the arrest of Khobragade, who was strip-searched and handcuffed while in custody. Khobragade was arrested on December 12 and released on $250 000 bail after giving up her passport and pleading not guilty to charges of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her housekeeper, also an Indian.

At the time of her arrest, Khobragade was serving as deputy consul general in New York, a role that affords less diplomatic protection from US law. She faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted of both counts. In an unusual move, the US has flown the family of the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, out of India. Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said on Wednesday Richard's family had been brought to the US after legal efforts had begun in India "to silence her, and attempts were made to compel her to return to India."

Mukherji said that once Khobragade receives her diplomatic card at the UN she would be eligible for greater privileges, including diplomatic protection from arrest. "We have welcomed her into our team here at the UN. I have had a meeting with her," Mukherji said. "As soon as she is accredited, we hope she will be able to discharge her responsibilities." State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, declined to offer any opinion on whether the change in diplomatic status could prevent Khobragade from being re-arrested or enable her to leave the US. "I don't want to speculate on that," Psaki told reported. But she added that a change in status would not provide a "clean slate from past charges."

Stain on the bigger picture

India is demanding that all charges against Khobragade be dropped, and political parties preparing for an election next May have tried to out do each other in their calls for retaliatory action against the US. "The US has to understand that the world has changed, times have changed, India has changed," said Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath. "The conduct and attitude that the US has shown regarding the Devyani issue is a matter of concern not only for India, but also for all countries and everyone should raise their voice."

On Friday, protesters ransacked a Domino's Pizza in a Mumbai suburb in anger while others shouted slogans outside the US consulate in the southern city of Hyderabad. While in New York, a few dozen protesters including several domestic workers from South and Southeast Asia gathered outside India's consulate, chanting slogans and waving posters demanding that Khobragade's diplomatic immunity be waived. "Passports revoked, slave wages, restricted communication – this constitutes trafficking workers," said Leah Obias, an organiser with the migrant-workers rights group Damayan.

"There are diplomats trafficking workers all over the city and we demand justice." For all the strong words, both sides have a strong interest in getting relations back on track. India and the US have enjoyed warmer ties on several fronts over the past decade. Bilateral trade has reached more than $90-billion, and New Delhi and Washington co-operate closely in counter terrorism, while sharing a common interest in ensuring stability in Afghanistan once western forces withdraw.

"We want to move beyond this, and I think we all recognise the importance of our long-term relationship," Psaki said. – Reuters

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