Amid efforts to resolve the raging diplomatic row over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, the US today rejected India's demands of dropping visa fraud charges against the senior diplomat and apologising for mistreating her.
State Department spokesperson Marie Harf made it clear that 39-year-old Khobragade will have to face the "very serious" allegations and that the immunity sought for her after her transfer to India's Permanent Mission to the UN is "not retroactive".
In Delhi, sources said the two sides discussed specific steps to resolve the situation during a telephone call made by US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman to Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh to follow up on the conversation Secretary of State John Kerry had with National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon on Wednesday. "We take these allegations very seriously. We're not in any way walking back from those allegations or the charges. Again, this is really a law enforcement issue," Harf said in response to a volley of questions on the issue.
The spokesperson replied in the negative on being asked whether the Deputy Consul General in New York, arrested on December 12, would be allowed to go "scot-free". "I don't know the details of the complaint, and I don't know if even withdrawing the complaint, which I'm not saying anybody is considering would, in fact, drop the charge. That's not something that's even being considered," Harf said. "We certainly take these types of allegations very seriously though. It's not a decision for us whether to prosecute or not," Harf said.
Contradicting External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid's remark yesterday that the two sides were trying to lock a time for a conversation between him and Kerry, Harf said nothing was scheduled as of now. "No plans (for Kerry) to (call Khurshid)," she said. "I mean, he (Kerry) is always open to, but I think there was some misreporting out there today that he maybe was planning to, and that's just not the case," she said.
Khurshid had said, "I was not available when John Kerry called. We are trying to lock a time for a call this evening or may be tomorrow. Kerry is in the Philippines and there is a huge time difference."
Kerry is on a year-end family vacation and would return to Washington after holidays, she said.
Asked whether Khobragade had been accorded diplomatic immunity after being moved to India's Permanent Mission to the UN she said they are yet to receive any request from the Indian government.
She, however, made it clear that this immunity would not be with retrospective effect. "It is not retroactive," she said in response to a question. "Generally speaking, if there's a change in immunity, because of a different diplomatic status, that immunity would start on the date it's conferred, after the process," Harf said. "So there's a process: it goes to the UN Secretariat, comes to the US State Department, everybody has to say yes. There's a process, a bureaucratic process. And then, if a different diplomatic status is conferred, it's conferred at that date," she said.
Harf termed India's allegations that the US did not respond to the series of letters and communications that were made by it as "highly inaccurate". "It's highly inaccurate to say that we ignored any Government of India communiques on this issue, period," she said, but refused to divulge the details citing the legal nature of the case. "We're still compiling a precise sequence of all of our government-to-government communications on it - goes back months. Some of these communications are private diplomatic conversations or law enforcement sensitive," she said.
Harf refused to distance the State Department from the highly rhetorical statement of Indian-American prosecutor Preet Bharara, who is handling the case, as was being reported from India.
The Indian side has retaliated strongly to the strip search and other mistreatment meted out to the Indian diplomat.
Harf, responding to the furore over the issue, said, "We are conveying repeatedly the same message, both about our regret about what happened, but also how we move forward from here." She said the US informs annually every country having diplomats here through diplomatic notes about "obligations they have for their staffs when they bring them to the United States." "We make those obligations very clear and we take any allegations that they haven't done so very seriously. So certainly, there's no discussion like that going on. We just want the process to move forward," Harf said.
Further asked about the issue of immunity after Khobragade's transfer to India's Permanent Mission to the UN, Harf said, "We haven't received an official request for re-accreditation. Obviously, if we do, we'll look at it. I don't want to venture to guess hypothetically what a new position might look like because we haven't received that yet."
Harf acknowledged that Sangeeta Richard's father-in-law works for the US Embassy in New Delhi. "I can confirm thar he either was or is – I don't know the current status – employed in a personal capacity by a US diplomat, not as a US Government employee," she said. "But I would say that we have engaged in extensive conversations with the Government of India about this issue in Washington, in New York, in New Delhi, going back to the summer," Harf said.
"We've also requested the Government of India to provide us with the results of its own enquiry into the allegations made by Dr Khobragade's domestic worker and to make her available to discuss them, I don't think either of which was done," Harf alleged.
Defending the US Government's decision to provide visa to the immediate family members of the missing Indian maid, she said it was part of the effort to unite the family. "Without going into specifics about some of those details, the US Government has taken steps to reunite the alleged victim with her family. Obviously, I'm not going to go into specifics about that. We are aware of the existence of allegations that the family was intimidated in India. Obviously, I can't confirm those. But in general, we take those kinds of allegations very seriously," Harf argued.
A 1999-batch IFS officer, Khobragade was arrested and then handed over to the US Marshals Service (USMS). She has since been posted to India's Permanent Mission in New York.
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. She could face a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration if convicted.