5:45 am - Wednesday November 11, 2015

John Kerry calls Shivshankar Menon to express regret about Devyani’s treatment; defends US laws

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John Kerry calls Shivshankar Menon to express regret about Devyani's treatment; defends US laws
John Kerry calls Shivshankar Menon to express regret about Devyani's treatment; defends US laws

Washington – The United States moved quickly on Wednesday to defuse the tangled diplomatic spat with India by having secretary of state John Kerry telephone India’s national security adviser Shivshankar Menon to express regret about the incident in which diplomat Devyani Khobragade was treated harshly by US law enforcement authorities.

“As a father of two daughters about the same age as Devyani Khobragade, the secretary empathizes with the sensitivities we are hearing from India about the events that unfolded after Ms Khobragade’s arrest,” state department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a written statement, adding, “In his conversation with Menon, he expressed his regret, as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India,” Harf added.

However, the US administration made it clear that it stands by the reasons behind the arrest, and the regrets expressed was only in relation to the treatment. “The secretary understands very deeply the importance of enforcing our laws and protecting victims, and, like all officials in positions of responsibility inside the US. government, expects that laws will be followed by everyone here in our country. It is also particularly important to secretary Kerry that foreign diplomats serving in the United States are accorded respect and dignity just as we expect our own diplomats should receive overseas, ” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered Indian foreign service official was transferred on Wednesday to India’s UN mission in New York to allow her full diplomatic immunity as both New Delhi and Washington moved to cover legal bases and arrive at a creative solution in a full-blown spat that has become increasingly messy and complicated.

The move is aimed at giving the mid-level official, who was attached to the Indian consulate in New York and enjoyed limited immunity therein, complete protection from prosecution. However, for that to happen, Khobragade will have to be issued new credentials by the United Nations, a process where the US state department has a nominal role.

If Washington is bloody-minded and insistent on prosecuting Khobragade for her alleged infractions, it could put a spanner in the works. However, New Delhi is hoping that this “creative opening” that has been conceived to protect the diplomat will be honored by Washington so that she is spared further travails in an incident arising from episodic and spotty US implementation of its laws and India’s dodgy acceptance of it.

Earlier, Indian anger mounted on Wednesday when it transpired that Washington literally sprang the husband and two children of the housekeeper Sangeeta Richard from New Delhi by giving them expedited visas to travel to the US two days before the state department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the justice department acted in concert to swoop down and arrest Devyani Khobragade on visa fraud charges.

Reports from Delhi also spoke of Sangeeta’s in-laws working for the American embassy in New Delhi, which would suggest that contacts within the US diplomatic community would have come into play in her battle against the Indian diplomat.

In what some Indian officials view as a tight, narrow, and mean-spirited interpretation of US minimum wage laws and consular immunity, the diplomat was subjected to indignities such as cavity searches that are sanctioned by US courts and meant primarily for drug smugglers and common criminals, after being slapped with charges of visa fraud and misrepresentation.

What role the US embassy in Delhi played in protecting a family member of its Indian staff, and whether it consequently resulted in harsh treatment of the Indian diplomat is something that might emerge in the coming days.

The state department has promised to investigate how and why such methods were used on a diplomat who was so obviously not in that category. But the US marshals service, which subjected the diplomat to the treatment, stood its ground, suggesting that insofar as it was concerned, once the state department’s Diplomatic Security Service signed off on the arrestee as having no immunity, “standard procedure” kicked in.

In other words, it is not to be blamed for the fiasco; it was just doing its job by the book.

The question now arises as to why role did the state department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security — which also takes care of US security interests at its missions in India — play in initiating this extreme step, who signed off on it, and why there was no effort to defuse the situation in Washington DC.

As reported on Tuesday, US officials told ToI that the state department alerted the Indian embassy in writing in September to the imminent action against the diplomat on the basis of the housekeeper’s complaint. However, Indian officials countered that it was part of an ongoing correspondence on resolving the matter in which the legal systems of both countries had kicked in.

Both sides are now reviewing the timeline and sequence of events to determine where the screw-up occurred and how to get around it.

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