Under intense pressure from India over its handling of the arrest of senior diplomat Devyani Khobragade, the US has said it is "looking into" the facts of the case, even as US Marshals today admitted that she had been strip searched as part of "standard procedures".
"We understand that this is a sensitive issue for many in India. 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," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said.
Her statement came after India took a series of steps in retaliation to Khobragade's arrest and ill-treatment in New York last week for alleged visa fraud.
The 39-year-old consular officer was subjected to a humiliating strip search, was swabbed for DNA and was kept in a cell with drug addicts after her arrest. She was released on bail the same day.
"While this is a law enforcement issue and will need to be worked through standard procedures and official law enforcement channels, we will continue to work this issue with India in the spirit of partnership and cooperation that marks our broad bilateral relationship," Harf said as the US went into damage control mode following India's tough stand.
A 1999 batch IFS officer, Khobragade, India's Deputy Consul General in New York, was arrested on December 12 by the State Department's diplomatic security bureau, and then handed over to the US Marshals Service (USMS). Khobragade was taken into custody as she was dropping her daughter to school before being released on a USD 250,000 bond after pleading not guilty in court.
USMS confirmed that Khobragade was subjected to a "strip search", the same as other arrestees. "As for the type of search, I can only confirm that she was subject to the same search procedures as other USMS arrestees held within the general prisoner population in the Southern District of New York, which in this case was a strip search," USMS spokesperson Nikki Credic-Barrett said.
She insisted that standard intake procedures were followed, saying, "While in USMS custody, standard arrestee intake procedures were followed."
On confining the diplomat with drug addicts in the same cell, she said, "The arrestee was placed in a cell with other female defendants awaiting court proceedings." The spokesperson, however, refused to take any position on the diplomat's arrest, saying USMS was not the arresting agency and takes no position regarding the appropriateness of her arrest.
"The USMS has reviewed its own detention of arrestee Devyani Khobragade and has determined that the USMS, Southern District of New York handled Khobragade's intake and detention in accordance with USMS Policy Directives and Protocols," she said.
Reacting to the incident, Khobragade's attorney said she enjoyed diplomatic immunity and her arrest was a failure of protocol. "Dr Khobragade is protected from prosecution by virtue of her diplomatic status. This entire prosecution represents a significant error in judgement and an embarrassing failure of US international protocol," Daniel N Arshack said.
He hoped that the matter will be promptly resolved as "diplomats with authority at the highest levels of the Indian and US governments will confer and conclude that it is simply not in the mutual interests of our countries to continue with this ill-advised prosecution."
Distressed at the treatment that Khobragade received at the hands of US authorities, Arshack said there was simply no reason to have arrested her on the street in front of her daughter's school nor to have strip searched her. "Similarly situated individuals of her stature are routinely provided an opportunity to report to the authorities to address charges, at their convenience, instead of being swept off the street like a common criminal," he said.
Yesterday, a furious India retaliated with a slew of measures to pare down the privileges of American diplomats after details of Khobragade's arrest became public.
The measures include, downgrading privileges enjoyed by US diplomats and their families, including withdrawing of airport passes and stopping import clearances for the US Embassy.
India has also asked all US Consulate personnel and their families to turn in their ID cards immediately which will "now be downgraded on par with what the US provides to our Consulates," sources said.
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