The arrest of a low-level diplomat from India over maid pay in New York has spun into an international incident that is threatening relations between the United States and a longtime ally.
Secretary of State John Kerry called a cabinet official in New Delhi on Wednesday to express regret over the arrest of India deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade, who was stripped- and cavity-searched during her arrest on charges that she didn't pay her housekeeper enough money.
The India government reacted with outrage, going so far as to remove security barriers outside the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and canceling duty-free liquor deliveries to the embassy.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the diplomat's treatment as "deplorable" and protests have broken out in India.
"We don't want this to negatively impact our bilateral relationship (with India), and we'll keep talking about it with them on the ground and here," said Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the State Department.
Khobragade said the U.S. Marshals Service subjected her to an intrusive search and DNA swabbing following her arrest last week outside her daughter's Manhattan school on visa charges despite her "incessant assertions of immunity."
But the U.S. attorney in New York, Preet Bharara, issued a long statement Wednesday evening saying she was treated well and provided courtesies most other defendants would not get.
He said U.S. Department of State agents arrested her discreetly last week, not in front of her children, and she wasn't handcuffed or restrained. He said she was "fully searched'' by a female deputy marshal in private and called it standard procedure for "every defendant, rich or poor, American or not."
In a response to the uproar, Bharara said she "clearly tried to evade U.S. law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers. Not only did she try to evade the law, but as further alleged, she caused the victim and her spouse to attest to false documents and be a part of her scheme to lie to U.S. government officials.''
Khobragade was arrested last Thursday on charges that 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, far less than U.S. minimum wage laws.
Kerry told India's national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, that while the U.S. government expects laws to be followed by everyone in the USA, "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," Harf said.
"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," Khobragade wrote.
Khobragade was released on $250,000 bail but as a condition of her release must report to police in New York every week.
In India, 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 heinous crimes.
India has retaliated against U.S. diplomats by not only revoking diplomat ID cards but demanding to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in U.S. Embassy households. India has also withdrawn import licenses that allowed the commissary at the U.S. Embassy to import duty-free alcohol and food.
In a dangerous move, police removed the traffic barricades near the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi that are designed to prevent attacks. India said the barriers clogged up traffic.
On Wednesday, dozens of people protested outside the U.S. Embassy, saying Khobragade's treatment was an insult to all Indian women. In New Delhi, the lower house of Parliament had to be temporarily adjourned Wednesday after lawmakers noisily demanded that it adopt a resolution against the United States.
BJP leader, Yashwant Sinha called on the government to expel all gay partners of U.S. diplomats, according to Indian newspaper The Hindu. Indian law considers homosexuality a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison for "voluntarily having carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal."
Among those leading criticism of the arrest is Narendra Modi, a candidate for prime minister in upcoming national elections for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Nehru-Gandhi family leading India's ruling Congress party, is also assailing the arrest, according to the Hindustan Times.
Both were among Indian leaders who snubbed a visiting U.S. congressional delegation over Khobragade's treatment.