The changing saga of the Devyani Khobragade case.
By Rajiv Theodore
NEW DELHI: In a stunning turnaround, which goes against what has been in the news so far, including declarations by US Attorney Preet Bharara that “standard procedure” was followed in the aftermath of the arrest of the Indian Deputy Consul General Dr. Devyani Khobragade, a spokesperson for the US Marshals Service now says that the diplomat was not subject to a cavity search.
Nikki Credic-Barrett, spokesperson of the US Marshals Service told the Press Trust of India, “In reference to your question about the cavity search, the answer is no.”
Khobragade had after he release from jail, in an email to some of her colleagues, written about the indignities suffered by her, including cavity searches.
The Marshals’ declaration comes after Bharara released a statement yesterday which said that the diplomat was not handcuffed, not arrested in front of her children whom she was dropping off at school. The arresting officers did not seize her phone and gave her ample time to make calls with coffee.
However, New Delhi was quick to swing into action. In fact, it is election mode in India these days and the ruling party does not want to be seen as pusillanimous anymore at least in its diplomatic dealings. In retaliation for the arrest and strip search of Khobragade, from Thursday night onwards US diplomats and their families would be on their own in the Indian airports and cannot avail of any special treatment as their deadline to surrender airport passes expires. The US embassy has also been asked to provide a list of all Indian nationals working with its consulates, including domestic servants, by December 23.
India has also sought copies of their contracts, bank accounts, salaries and PAN (permanent account number) cards. All import clearances including booze for the US embassy has been stopped and the ubiquitous traffic barricades near the US embassy for extended security on Nyaya Marg in New Delhi has been taken-off the road.
Also, the External Affairs Ministry here shot of a strongly worded statement, “We have seen the statement issued by the Manhattan US Attorney on December 18. We need to keep in mind the simple fact that there is only one victim in this case. That victim is Devyani Khobragade – a serving Indian Diplomat on mission in the United States.
The action taken against her was not in keeping with the Vienna Convention. There were no courtesies in the treatment that was meted out to the diplomat, under the normal definition of that word in the English language, said the ministry.
Bharara’s statement includes remarks about equality before the law of both the rich and the poor. Not only is this a rhetorical remark that is not conducive to resolving “inaccuracies”, it is also not a feature of the law that is exclusive to the office of the Manhattan US Attorney, said the ministry in a rebuttal to his statement.
Bharara’s statement in question acknowledges that legal processes were in place in India. Yet, incredibly, it invites speculation about why it was necessary to evacuate the family of Sangeeta Richard and about the action purportedly being taken against them. The implication of this remarkable admission needs to be considered very carefully with regard to the implicit comment it makes about the Indian legal system, Indian law enforcement authorities, and the responsibility that legal officials of a foreign government seem to arrogate upon themselves with regard to the nationals of another country. It needs to be asked what right a foreign government has to “evacuate” Indian citizens from India while cases are pending against them in the Indian legal system.
The statement underlines the compulsion that is felt by the Manhattan US Attorney’s office “to make sure that victims, witnesses and their families are safe and secure while cases are pending.”
This is precisely why, when there is a prior legal process already underway in India, the Manhattan US Attorney should consider it obligatory to enable justice to take its course in India in the first instance. When the legal process in another friendly and democratic country is interfered with in this manner, it not only amounts to interference but also raises the serious concern of calling into question the very legal system of that country. “This statement is one more attempt at a post facto rationalization for an action that should never have taken place in the first instance,” said the ministry.
However, to give some kind of a twist or call it balance or even a perspective to the saga one needs to understand the long history of the US in tackling such incidents where the abuse of the foreign domestic workers by diplomats are involved.
The US State Department had written a letter to the Indian Ambassador on September 4, “Projecting the allegations of [Ms. Richard] disputing her terms of employment with Ms. Khobragade which were of concern to the State Department” and requesting the Indian embassy to look into it. The Embassy simply responded by narrating Khobragade’s argument against her domestic help Sangeeta Richard. The Embassy, however, failed to fathom the seriousness of the letter although it did not have any warning on the impending arrest of the Indian envoy, otherwise they would have sent her packing out of the US.
It also should be seen from a backdrop of the U.S. which had in recent years faced a slew of ‘maid abuse’ cases within the diplomatic community. In 2008 a government watchdog, the Government Accountability Office “identified 42 household workers with A-3 or G-5 visas who alleged that they were abused by foreign diplomats with immunity from 2000 through 2008, but the total number is likely higher.”
The office has argued that it has become a complex issue for the U.S. government to investigate alleged abuse of household workers by foreign diplomats immunity– that can constraint law enforcement in collecting evidence. Then there is the heightened sense of vulnerability of workers owing to the status of foreign diplomats, and the length of time it takes to obtain a legal opinion.
It must also be recalled that in 2008, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act was passed which was a kind of a blow to workers’ rights under President George W. Bush. This law entails that worker must be made aware of their rights in the US by the consular officers. Also, more importantly diplomats are required to have a contract with the domestic worker on conditions of employment. The State Department could even suspend the issuance of visas to a particular mission when it receives evidence that a worker has been exploited or abused while the mission was well aware of it.
Khobragade, who was posted as deputy consul general in New York, was taken into custody last week on visa fraud charges as she was dropping her daughter to school before being released on a $250,000 bond after pleading not guilty in court. And now to give her fuller diplomatic status and immunity she has been transferred to India’s permanent mission to the UN in New York.
The diplomat’s sister Sharmishta in a Facebook post Thursday, citing a letter written by Richard, said the maid was treated as a family member but said Richard had been blackmailing Khobragade to get herself a green card.
Shortly after leaving her sister’s employment in June, Richard had resurfaced and asked Khobragade to meet her at an immigration lawyer’s office and made three demands –$10,000 in cash, a normal Indian passport (she was on a diplomatic passport which was revoked soon after she absconded) and immigration support. Khobragade refused to comply.