NEW YORK — A federal prosecutor ventured into the tense relationship between the U.S. and India on Wednesday, defending the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat held on visa charges and saying she was treated very well, even given coffee and offered food while detained.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who made the highly unusual move of issuing a lengthy statement addressing the arrest and issues not in a criminal complaint, said diplomat Devyani Khobragade was afford 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 discretely arrested by U.S. Department of State agents outside her children’s Manhattan school.
Khobragade was arrested last week on charges she lied on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national. Prosecutors say the maid received less than $3 per hour for her work.
Bharara said Khobragade, who has pleaded not guilty, wasn’t handcuffed, restrained or arrested in front of her children. And he said that while she was “fully searched” in private by a female deputy marshal, the move was a standard safety practice all defendants undergo.
Khobragade has been transferred to India’s mission to the United Nations, according to her lawyer and a former colleague. It’s unclear how such a move might affect her immunity from prosecution, and a U.N. spokesman said it hadn’t received a necessary transfer request from her Wednesday evening.
News that Khobragade was strip-searched has chilled U.S.-Indian relations, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called a top Indian official to express his regret over what happened. India has revoked privileges for U.S. diplomats in protest.
Bharara, who was born in India but moved with his family to New Jersey, defended his case.
“One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country,” he said in the statement. “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?”
Khobragade, who was India’s deputy consul general in New York, would 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 hers is more limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. Her work status late Wednesday was unclear.
Indian consulate spokesman Venkatasamy Perumal said Khobragade was transferred Tuesday 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.
Department of State deputy spokeswoman Marie 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.”
Khobragade has said U.S. authorities subjected her to a strip-search, cavity search and DNA swabbing following her arrest.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described her treatment as “deplorable.”
In India, the fear of public humiliation resonates strongly, and heavy-handed treatment by the police is normally reserved for the poor. For an educated, middle-class woman to face public arrest and a strip-search is almost unimaginable, except in the most brutal crimes.
Harf, the Department of State spokeswoman, said Kerry called India’s National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, who has slammed the diplomat’s treatment as “despicable and barbaric.”
In an email published in Indian media on Wednesday, Khobragade said she was treated like a common criminal.
“I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity,” she wrote.
Khobragade was arrested by the Department of State’s diplomatic security team and then handed over to U.S. marshals in New York.
The U.S. Marshals Service confirmed Tuesday that it had strip-searched Khobragade and placed her in a cell with other female defendants. It described the measures as “standard arrestee intake procedures.” It could not immediately confirm whether she underwent a cavity search.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said “this isolated episode is not indicative of the close and mutually respectful ties” that the U.S. and India share.
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.
On Wednesday, dozens of people protested outside the U.S. Embassy, saying Khobragade’s treatment was an insult to Indian women.