India-US diplomatic row


Diplomatic relations between India and the US have been rocked by the treatment meted out to Devyani Khobragade, the Indian deputy consul-general in New York, who was accused of providing false information to obtain a work visa for a household employee.

I saw the original story a day or so ago and was not surprised. The dirty little secret is that there are people from developing countries who work in embassies or international organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund who, used to having cheap live-in domestic help at home, bring them to the US by getting visas for them by saying that they pay them more than they actually do. Such employees often live lives of indentured servitude, since they live in a strange land where they know nobody and don’t speak the language and are thus unable to complain.

Ms. Khobragade said she would pay her nanny $4,500 a month, in accordance with US labor laws, in her visa application, but actually paid the nanny $573.07 a month, according to the district attorney’s office. If found guilty, Khobragade faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making false statements..

I was glad that officials were cracking down on this kind of exploitation. What I did not expect was that Khobragade would be treated the way she was. (Thanks to Marcus Ranum for the link.)

Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul-general, was arrested last week for alleged visa fraud while she had gone to drop her daughters to school.

Besides being handcuffed in public, Khobragade, 39, was not only stripped but also allegedly forced to undergo repeated body cavity searches – a treatment usually reserved for drug suspects – before she was freed on a $250,000 bail bond.

Subsequently, Khobragade narrated her ordeal in an email to her colleagues.

“I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity,” the 1999-batch IFS officer wrote.

The offense she committed reminded me of the Nannygate scandals back in the 1993 when officials nominated for high government positions were found to have hired undocumented immigrants and/or not paid their live-in nannies properly and/or not contributed to their Social Security. As a result of all that publicity, one rarely hears of such things now, presumably because those seeking high office have learned to be careful. But those people were never treated like this.

Indians are outraged at this treatment and demanding retaliation and the government has done so.

Disturbed by the details, New Delhi upped the ante and stripped US diplomats and their families in India of several privileges.

Taking the position that American staff at consulates will be treated at par with which Indian diplomats are treated in consulates in the US, all personnel posted in consulates and their families have been asked to turn in their diplomatic ID cards immediately.

On the instructions of the government, the special barricading outside the US Embassy in New Delhi that had closed a part of Nyaya Marg to the public, was also removed. While the barricading and closing of the stretch of road has ended, a police picket will remain there for security purposes.

Making a distinction between consulate and embassy staff – the US has four consulates in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad – instructions have been sent out that details of all Indians employed at the consulates have to be shared.

Besides, US staff at the consulates have been asked to provide details of the employment of their spouses or dependents along with tax details, bank account numbers and salary details.

What surprised me was the US State Department’s response. Rather than trying to heal the breach, it said that her treatment was appropriate.

In Washington, the US state department has said that standard procedures were followed during Khobragade’s arrest. Officials argue that her immunity from prosecution extends only to actions directly connected to her position.

So why was Khobragade treated this way? If this is ‘standard procedure’, then isn’t it time to re-think that? Is everyone who is arrested treated this way? Or could it be that she made the cardinal mistake of ‘committing an offense while brown’ in mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk emporium, where police brutality against people of color seems to be routine? How would the US react if one of its consular personnel in India was treated according to their ‘standard procedures’ of criminals?

The US sure knows how to win friends overseas.

Comments

  1. Pen says

    I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity

    Possibly she has some diplomatic immunity and it strikes me that the stripping and body cavity searches were completely superfluous and unrelated to the crime but I have no idea why she thinks she’s better than a common criminal. Worse, I would say. Of course, she’s not alone. I suspect plenty of American citizens are doing what she does.

  2. Mano Singham says

    People of this class are used to being treated with great deference. They have no problem with this kind of ghastly treatment in general. They just think it should not be done to them.

  3. johnwoodford says

    Well, they’re half-right; unless there’s an articulable suspicion of contraband and a direct relationship to the offense, it shouldn’t be done to anyone. In this case, having the State Department double down on the matter of treatment (not the arrest and charges, which are IMHO reasonable) is reprehensible.

  4. khms says

    her immunity from prosecution extends only to actions directly connected to her position

    Hmm.

    My understanding of diplomatic immunity is that it applies to pretty much everything. You might be able to do something when you watch a diplomat kill someone with a knife, and catch him with the bloody knife still in his hand – but even then the likely outcome is that you just throw him out.

    I remember hearing, back when the West German capital was in Bonn, that there were a large number of outstanding traffic and parking tickets against diplomats – because it was impossible to enforce them (and they weren’t considered grounds enough for sending the diplomat back home).

    I also dimly remember a case of a diplomat shooting someone from inside an embassy – may have been in the UK – and all they could do was send him home. (Somewhere like Iran or Iraq? Really hazy memory.)

    The whole point of the rule is that it’s far too easy to just trump up some charges for a diplomat you want to get – the only way to protect against that is for the immunity to cover everything. It’s pretty much the same reason members of parliaments and government leaders are often immune against criminal charges (usually unless the parliament in question explicitly allows them for the case in question). For a rather prominent case, see Berlusconi.

    Now, it is possible that there’s a different law for consuls, but I’ve certainly never heard of it. Sounds more likely to me that once again, the US thinks they are special.

  5. AsqJames says

    I think US diplomats still refuse to pay the London congestion charge. The state department argue it’s a tax, but I don’t see that working for UK or other foreign diplomats who refused to pay bridge/tunnel/road tolls in the US.

    I also dimly remember a case of a diplomat shooting someone from inside an embassy – may have been in the UK – and all they could do was send him home. (Somewhere like Iran or Iraq? Really hazy memory.)

    Libya.

    The identity of the shooter was never established. The government of Libya eventually admitted responsibility, but if I remember correctly, only when Qaddaffi was looking to re-enter the “community of nations” and start selling oil/gas again (and incidentally avoid the same fate as Saddam).

  6. says

    I’m just freaked out that someone thought cavity-searching a diplomat was a good idea. Such a good idea that they had to check a couple times. I’d expect several careers to end, loudly and publicly, and some kind of “OMG we are horribly sorry for the stupidity of some of our minions!” apology… Not doubling down.

  7. Al Dente says

    Strip searches for an arrest for a non-violent, non-smuggling crime are highly unusual. I would guess the police are trying to “teach a lesson” although which lesson is unknown.

  8. says

    I wonder if the fact that she’s an attractive young woman had anything to do with it.

    Actually, I’m not wondering at all. I’m betting there were some rapist cops going, “hey, you ought to check out …” Ugh, ugh, ugh. What the fuck is wrong with these authoritarian shitsacs?

  9. Trebuchet says

    I wonder if the fact that she’s an attractive young brown woman had anything to do with it.

    FTFY

  10. Mary Jo says

    This woman basically thinks she can bring her slaves with her to America. The way she treats her “staff” sickens me. I am more concerned for the nanny. I do not think an apology to someone thinking they can have indentured servants in the USA is appropriate. I hope she gets the 15 years and gets treated in prison like a common criminal. Why are more people concerned for the alleged criminal than the victim? We know that in the USA when you are arrested you are cuffed. Maybe it is the policy that before you throw someone in the cells with the rest of the arrested folks you strip search them.I don’t know about that but it seems to be the case here. I imagine she was cavity searched by a female who does it routinely and is not stimulated by it.

  11. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Bullshit, I’ve been stripped searched numerous times when being arrested for utterly petty shit. It’s a part of being lodged in jail. The only thing unusual about this is that it happened to a rich person.

  12. says

    I imagine she was cavity searched by a female who does it routinely and is not stimulated by it.

    There are two (at least?) separate issues going on here. One is the employment situation with the nanny, and the other is whether the actions of the police were appropriate. It seems to me that, between both these situations, there’s a whole lot of wrong going on – you’re completely correct that treating someone as a virtual slave is wrong and there’s a lot of interesting questions surrounding abuse of diplomatic immunity in that regard. But, I also think that multiple strip and cavity searches, for a suspect who is not under suspicion for something in which concealing drugs or weapons is a legitimate concern – that’s inappropriate. We can be fairly sure that she was not hiding the nanny in her rectum. And, the first strip/cavity search (which I think was inappropriate) would have probably found the nanny.

    Perhaps whoever it was who was doing the searches was not doing it because they enjoyed it; maybe they were using it to humiliate a suspect. That’s still a serious abuse of power. I don’t want to be part of a society in which the police feel they can engage in punitive softening up of suspects (or rape them) and get away with it. Because if I get pulled in for jaywalking I don’t want a cavity search, either.

    And, there’s the US’ reaction to it. There’s so much wrong, here, to go around – it’s one fucked-up situation.

  13. says

    Do you feel that the strip searches were being used as a means of intimidation, or were they a reasonable thing for the police to have done in that situation?

  14. says

    We shouldn’t even be fucking treating drug offenders like this. A simple arrest is not a sanction to rape a person. The fact that cavity searches have become “standard procedure” is one of the clearest signs that we have put too much power in the hands of our police forces.

  15. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Like I said, it’s part of going to jail. Whether or not I should have been going to jail in the first place is something I could argue about for hours (and would have, if I could have afforded not to take a plea), but no one gets lodged without a strip search. In my experience the was no cavity search, just the “lift your genitals, now squat and cough” routine, but I’ve heard that a “digital examination” is basically SOP in a number of precincts (likely more urban and/or less liberal than where I live).

    To be clear, it’s not that I condone any excessively punitive behavior by the cops, I just can’t summon up a whole lot of sympathy for this poor rich lady who committed a (rather heinous) crime and is being subjected to the same indignities the rest of us face when we run afoul of the law.

  16. says

    I have problems treating this as “an entitled woman crying that she’s being treated like a common criminal”. I think it’s much more accurate to see this as India being upset at how one of it’s citizens is treated by our criminal justice system. As far as I’m concerned, they have every right to be. There was no objective purpose for the strip search or cavity searches or holding her in jail with a quarter of a million bail. That our own criminals are treated this way does not, in any way, excuse Khobragade’s treatment, merely exposes the problems systemic in our justice system.

    Personally, I think that outside the most extreme offenses and abuses of a diplomat’s position, the most a country should be able to do to a diplomat is label them persona non grata and require their country to replace them. They are not our citizens. Their own country should decide what to do with them.

  17. Mano Singham says

    And because it happened to a rich person, people become much more aware of the degrading way that (nearly) all people, particularly if they are part of powerless groups, are treated in the US criminal justice system.

  18. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Indeed. If anything what this country needs is more police abuse of the rich and powerful.

  19. Mary Jo says

    The US criminal justice system degrades the powerless. However, and mind you this was 20 years ago, I knew a guy in England who was with a group that would go to India to visit English persons withering away in Indian prisons in abhorrent conditions, no toilets, rats, anal rape by guards, etc.
    The Indian diplomat was subjected to cavity searches but if you or I were arrested in India we would possibly fare much worse:
    …The rape of persons in custody [in India] is also part of the broader pattern of custodial abuse. Prisoner charities argue that rape by police, including custodial rape, was more common than NHRC figures indicate, since many rape incidents go unreported due to the victims’ shame and fear of retribution. A statement from the Asian Legal Resource Centre, on custodial deaths and torture in India, handed to the National Human Rights Commission and to the Sixty-first Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, notes: “Any person, who dares to complain about police officers in India, faces the wrath of the law enforcement agency…The state of India’s penal and justice systems speaks volumes about the true nature of human rights and social equality in a country routinely held up by the Western media as the “world’s largest democracy.” http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2005/08/indi-a26.html
    I am sorry Mano if I am getting off track but I just don’t see why this lady is boo-hooing. She knew she was committing several crimes, and she knows jail in India is much worse than here. The offense she is accused of is extreme and she should be tried and punished in the country in which she is accused. Perhaps because, according to the Global Slavery Index, India is the country with by far the most slaves, with an estimated nearly 14 million, she thought she could bring her indentured servant to America. Well, she can’t.

  20. Rohan Dharwadkar says

    @ Mary Jo: “The Indian diplomat was subjected to cavity searches but if you or I were arrested in India we would possibly fare much worse:”

    I’m not sure what you’re trying get across by making this point. Are you trying to mitigate the unfairness of the unwarranted humiliations suffered by the Indian diplomat by saying, “Oh, you know, whatever the US does isn’t that big a deal, as long as it’s marginally better than the treatment she would’ve received back home.”? Or are you saying that just because you happen to be a citizen of a country with rampant rights violations, you aren’t entitled to them when abroad? In either case, it seems to me that you’re saying that you’d rather have human rights doled out selectively, rather than to one and all regardless of circumstances, which I think is quite a despicable attitude.

    Also, I’m a bit surprised by the fact that a couple of comments here seem to assume that she actually is a criminal. I thought that the presumption of innocence was a part of US law. Is that not so?

  21. Andrew G. says

    Consular staff are not diplomats. Diplomats do have immunity – the host country’s only recourse is to PNG them. But consular staff are more like official employees of the sending state – their official acts are protected, as being the acts of the sending state itself, but their personal activities are not.

  22. John Morales says

    I am sorry Mano if I am getting off track but I just don’t see why this lady is boo-hooing. She knew she was committing several crimes, and she knows jail in India is much worse than here.

    That is all irrelevant; the aggravating factor to the immorality of the process is the hypocrisy evinced: the USA claims to be better than that.

    (That’s like attempting to justify the Abu Grahib prison scandal by claiming Saddam’s regime was worse!)

  23. eigenperson says

    I just can’t summon up a whole lot of sympathy for this poor rich lady who committed a (rather heinous) crime and is being subjected to the same indignities the rest of us face when we run afoul of the law.

    Or rather, who is accused of a (rather heinous) crime.

    Too often, the police seem to treat it as their solemn duty to humiliate anyone they arrest. Probably this is intended as a form of psychological warfare, but it really should be considered a form of punishment, and therefore not legal until the person has been convicted.

  24. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    I just don’t see why this lady is boo-hooing. She knew she was committing several crimes

    Actually, we don’t know if she has committed any crimes.

    Ms. Khobragade said she would pay her nanny $4,500 a month, in accordance with US labor laws, in her visa application, but actually paid the nanny $573.07 a month, according to the district attorney’s office. If found guilty, Khobragade faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making false statements..

    Has she actually been charged yet, let alone tried?
    A certain glee at a comparatively wealthy person undergoing the humiliations ordinary people suffer regularly is understandable, but let’s not assume Ms Khobragade is guilty until proven innocent because she’s a comparatively wealthy Indian. Even if she is guilty, is the wage she is alleged to pay low by the standard of Indian pay? Did she just bring her children’s nanny with her and unthinkingly pay what she’d always paid?

  25. says

    Is there any evidence that the alleged strip searches actually took place? Abuse by police certainly does happen, but much more common is when a person taken into police custody overblowing what happens, such as screaming “Police brutality!” as the cuffs are being put on.

  26. Mary Jo says

    I am not sure why she is shocked by her treatment after being arrested. As she comes from a country that also treats those who are arrested badly she must have some awareness that jail might be an abusive place in this country also. That is why I detailed what might happen to those arrested in India, not to justify what we do here but to explain that she cannot be that naive. I do not think cavity searches are appropriate. Being cuffed and searched must be the policy in that precinct and I don’t think she should be treated differently but I do think that policy should be changed.

  27. A Hermit says

    Whether it happened or not the fact that such practices are defended as ‘Standard operating Procedure” is a little disturbing.

  28. says

    From what I’ve been reading, the police and State Department have made no comment about the veracity of the woman’s allegations: the response has only been that proper, accepted procedure was followed. What has been made public is very incomplete, thus my question.

  29. shash says

    Except for “grave crimes”, they’re immune too, according to the Vienna Convention:

    From the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations

    Article 41
    Personal inviolability of consular officers
    1.Consular officers shall not be liable to arrest or detention pending trial, except in the case of a grave crime and pursuant to a decision by the competent judicial authority.
    2.Except in the case specified in paragraph 1 of this article, consular officers shall not be committed to prison or be liable to any other form of restriction on their personal freedom save in execution of a judicial decision of final effect.
    3.If criminal proceedings are instituted against a consular officer, he must appear before the competent authorities. Nevertheless, the proceedings shall be conducted with the respect due to him by reason of his official position and, except in the case specified in paragraph 1 of this article, in a manner which will hamper the exercise of consular functions as little as possible. When, in the circumstances mentioned in paragraph 1 of this article, it has become necessary to detain a consular officer, the proceedings against him shall be instituted with the minimum of delay.
    Article 42
    Notification of arrest, detention or prosecution
    In the event of the arrest or detention, pending trial, of a member of the consular staff, or of criminal proceedings being instituted against him, the receiving State shall promptly notify the head of the consular post. Should the latter be himself the object of any such measure, the receiving State shall notify the sending State through the diplomatic channel.

  30. shash says

    So, tell me… How do you think she treated her staff? Is there any evidence for it?

    Her side of the story seems to be that she’s being blackmailed by the maid and her family. As of now, all we know is that the maid disappeared in June and the case has been going on since then. Allegedly this woman committed “visa fraud” by bringing the maid (at the stated salary) in the first place. However, that’s not cut and dried either. The salary she’s paying, in India, would be about 2-3x what such a position would fetch. The salary she’s supposed to pay, according to the US interpretation of the law, is somewhere close to what a relatively mid-to-high ranking manager in the IT industry would earn here. It’s also more than the consular official in question is being paid. It appears that part of the salary was paid by the Indian government (which would make the maid an Indian government employee). The “slave labour” wages look like they’d be enough to keep her family comfortable at a lower-middle class level.

    A live-in domestic help is one of the perks afforded to pretty much every civil servant of the senior cadres in India – there are different services such as the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service, or, as in this case, the Indian Foreign Service. Apparently, the Ministry of External Affairs picks up part of the tab. In this case, one of the issues seems to be that the Indian government wants these domestics classified as government employees, and thus, consular staff (which among other things would exempt them from minimum wage law in the US). The US doesn’t agree. Presumably, with travel to and from India, food and stay in the US taken care of, a large part of the reason for the minimum wage doesn’t technically apply. Now we might argue that they shouldn’t be allowed such perks, but that’s a debate India has to have, and one in which the NY prosecutor has no business poking his nose.

    There’s also no indication that the diplomat was in any way abusive of, or in any way harassed her employee. All that she’s been charged with right now is visa fraud. Admittedly, this is a serious charge, but it appears that it may be a procedural issue way above this level, involving policy in both countries.

    So, let’s not jump to conclusions, eh?

  31. fentex says

    I am lead to believe that cavity searches are standard operating procedure for processing a prisoner in many facilities intended as a thorough assurance no contraband is passing into restricted areas.

    May it be that this women was processed as all others are when held in a facility with it as a routine procedure?

  32. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    $4500 per month-the amount that was supposed to be paid- is rather more than US minimum wage, surely.
    There’s complications with the $573.07 per month supposedly paid. A nanny would have free accommodation, food, certain expenses, quite possibly clothing supplied. In short, we don’t know how much was paid in kind and counted towards the official wage.

  33. Andrew G. says

    That’s nothing like the immunity that diplomats get. Consular staff can be charged with crimes and prosecuted, diplomats (and even their technical and admin staff) can’t. Consular officers (not all consular staff) are only immune to pre-trial detention and only then for crimes which aren’t “grave” (which the US seems to interpret to mean “felony” – so a consular officer can be arrested and detained on a felony warrant issued by a judge without violating article 41.1).

    And, of course, I don’t see why “violating immigration law in order to keep an underpaid domestic servant” shouldn’t be considered a grave crime.

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