What began last week as an apparently minor New York arrest on visa-fraud charges has become a major diplomatic row between the United States and India, and law-enforcement officials and the State Department have clashed over whether U.S. legal or diplomatic concerns should prevail.
At the end of another day of testy U.S.-India exchanges, spokeswoman Marie Harf repeated the State Department’s “regret” over the way the arrest of an Indian diplomat was handled and said that “what we’re focused on right now is working to move the relationship forward.”
Forward movement seemed unlikely, however, as the New Delhi government on Thursday urged the United States to drop the charges against Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, and insisted that she was the victim, not the perpetrator, in the case.
Khobragade was arrested last week and charged with underpaying an Indian household worker and lying about her wages to obtain a U.S. visa for the woman.
The story has dominated Indian news media and led to anti-U.S. demonstrations Thursday in the cities of Kolkata and Hyderabad, where an effigy of President Obama was burned.
India took particular exception to a blistering statement issued late Wednesday by the Indian-born federal prosecutor in Manhattan, who vowed to “uphold the rule of law, protect victims and hold accountable” even the “powerful, rich or connected.”
The statement by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara appeared to have taken much of the Obama administration, including his own Justice Department bosses, by surprise.
“We didn’t know it was coming,” said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It appeared that no one in the administration wanted to seem cavalier about the mistreatment of foreign workers or to override the judicial branch. But there was a widespread feeling among officials that, as Secretary of State John Kerry said in a conversation Wednesday with India’s national-security adviser, “certain courtesies were not extended” in the case.
“The fact here is that we are respectful of the law-enforcement process,” the senior official said. “We also have to be respectful of the fact that how these things are handled can have enormous repercussions, especially in a country with sensitivities like India.”
Relevant officials in the administration have known for months that an investigation was ongoing, but “nobody knew this was going to happen,” another U.S. official said.
Referring to Khobragade’s arrest, made after she dropped her children off at school, and her booking, strip-search and incarceration in New York, the official said, “That’s not the way these things are done.”
Others, in addition to Bharara, had a different view. “When someone is arrested for a violation of federal law, they do not get processed for a tea and crumpets ceremony,” Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, told The Wall Street Journal.
Spokeswoman Ellen Canale said Thursday that the Justice Department had no comment.
Many holes remain in the chronology of events leading up to the arrest, and numerous facts — including the level of diplomatic immunity afforded by Khobragade’s consular status — are in dispute among India, the United States and the parties involved.