Friday, December 27, 2013

India/US: Washington, New Delhi Continue to Exchange Retaliatory Actions Over Arrest of UN Deputy Consular General

According to Reuters, India has sought details about staff in American schools in the country for possible tax violations and revoked ID cards of US consular officials and their families, retaliatory steps for the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York City.

The measures suggest that the two countries are no closer to a resolution of a diplomatic dispute over the treatment of Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade, 39, on December 12, on charges of visa fraud and underpayment of her housekeeper.

Khobragade, who has denied the charges against her, was handcuffed and strip-searched while in custody, sparking outrage in India.

An Indian government official said on Friday (December 27) that New Delhi had asked the US Embassy in New Delhi to provide details about people working in American schools and other US government facilities to determine if they had permission to do so and if they were paying taxes that are mandatory under Indian law.

Diplomats' spouses who take up work in schools or other embassy facilities are supposed to inform the host country.

India has also withdrawn some privileges US diplomats and their families enjoy and would treat them as Indian officials are treated in the United States, an Indian official said.

COMMENT: US Ambassador Nancy Powell has been refused special privileges at New Delhi Airport, including the use of the VIP Lounge and tarmac motorcade pickups. "We have said all access is on a reciprocal basis," the Indian government official said. "She is not going to get the benefits that the Indian ambassador in the US doesn't get."

US consular officials and their families have been asked to surrender identity cards that gave them a degree of immunity. Under new policies, consular officials, but not their families, will be given identity cards with fewer privileges.

"Spouses and children have no more immunity. So if there is a parking offense another matter not covered under reciprocity, they would be held liable," an Indian official said.

Khobragade was released in New York City on $250,000 bail after giving up her passport and pleading not guilty to visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her Indian housekeeper. She faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted on both counts.

US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed regret over the case in a phone call to India's national security adviser last week, but India is still demanding that the charges be dropped and that the US apologize. US prosecutors have defended the investigation against Khobragade and her treatment. Before this diplomatic blowup, US-Indian relations were seen as cordial and on the mend. Now, not so much.

In a new twist, India now argues that Khobragade was accredited to the United Nations at the time of her detention, giving her immunity from arrest.

She was temporarily moved to India's UN mission in August to help with the workload ahead of the General Assembly session and a visit by the prime minister. A copy of her accreditation, made available to Reuters, lists her as an adviser for a period from August 26 until December 31.

"At no stage were we told by the US side what was going on. We were kept in the dark. A lot of these things could have come out had we been informed then," the official said, explaining that India had not been warned she might be arrested.

According to the UN Manual of Protocol website (http://www.un.int/protocol/3_6), UN accreditation alone does not appear to grant diplomatic immunity, it simply gives Khobragade access to UN headquarters in NYC.

The manual also says a country's UN ambassador must write to the UN secretary-general to request privileges and immunities for individual diplomats. The United Nations then submits this to the US mission to the United Nations for approval.

Independently, India did ask the UN earlier this month for Khobragade to be officially registered as a member of the country's UN mission in the hope she would be granted more sweeping immunity than she was entitled to as India's deputy consul general in NYC.

That request has been approved by the United Nations, a US source said. A US State Department official confirmed that the US had received paperwork from the United Nations and was reviewing the application.

Indian media said the request to transfer Devyani Khobragade, who was deputy consul-general in NYC, to the United Nations was aimed at ending the stand-off with the US in the hopes that her new diplomatic status could allow New Delhi to bring her home without the prosecution proceeding.

Khobragade's arrest on December 12 has enraged India, which is demanding that all charges be dropped against her. She was strip searched when arrested in what the US Marshals Service said was a routine procedure imposed on any new arrestee at the federal courthouse.

As India's deputy consul general in NYC, Khobragade had only limited diplomatic immunity from prosecution, not the more sweeping immunity accorded to UN-accredited diplomats.

A US State Department official confirmed that the US had received paperwork from the UN in which India is requesting to switch Khobragade's accreditation to the Indian mission to the UN.

According to UN guidelines on diplomatic privileges and immunities, documents certifying diplomatic immunity, if approved, are usually issued by the US Mission to the United Nations within two weeks of the initial request.

Diplomatic sources said that the broader immunity Khobragade would receive as a UN-accredited diplomat could make it harder to follow through on a prosecution against her.

One possible scenario to solve the crisis would be that she receives full diplomatic immunity in her UN post if the State Department approves her transfer. The US government would then ask for her immunity to be removed so she can face prosecution. Assuming India refused, the State Department could then take steps to have her removed from the country.

Asoke Mukerji, India's ambassador to the United Nations, wrote last week to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon informing him of the 39-year-old diplomat's planned transfer to the U.N. mission from the Indian consulate.

In an unusual move, the US has flown the family of the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, out of India. Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara has said attempts were made in India to "silence" Richard and compel her to return home.