NEW DELHI // An Indian diplomat who was arrested in New York City and accused of paying her housekeeper about US$3 dollars an hour had accused the woman of blackmail over the summer, an Indian official said yesterday.
The case has sparked a diplomatic furore between the United States and India, which is incensed over what its officials described as degrading treatment toward Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York.
The US Marshals Service confirmed it had strip searched Ms Khobragade and placed her in a cell with other female defendants last Thursday, saying the measures are “standard arrestee intake procedures”.
Ms Khobragade was charged with lying on a visa application, saying she paid the housekeeper — an Indian national — US$4,500 a month (Dh16,529), but actually paid her far below the minimum wage. She pleaded not guilty and was released on $250,000 bail.
The case has sparked outrage across India, where the idea of an educated, middle-class woman facing a strip search is almost unimaginable, except in the most brutal crimes. In an unusual step, the US attorney in Manhattan publicly defended Ms Khobragade’s treatment, and questioned why there was more outrage for Ms Khobragade than for the housekeeper.
Yesterday, an official in India’s External Affairs Ministry said Ms Khobragade filed a complaint with New York police and New Delhi police in July, saying the maid had disappeared and was trying to blackmail her. According to the official, the housekeeper said she would not report Ms Khobragade if she agreed to pay her more money and change her visa status to allow her to work elsewhere in the US.
New Delhi police issued a warrant for her arrest if she returned to India, the official said.
Ms Khobragade’s case has chilled US-Indian relations, and India has revoked privileges for US diplomats in protest. US secretary of state, John Kerry, called a top Indian official to express his regret over what happened.
On Wednesday, US Attorney Preet Bharara said Ms Khobragade was treated very well, even given coffee and offered food while detained.
“One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it to bring immigrants into the country,” Mr Bharara said, making the highly unusual move of issuing a lengthy statement addressing issues not in a criminal complaint. “And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?”
He also said Ms Khobragade was afforded courtesies most Americans would not get.
Ms Khobragade could face a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration if convicted. She has said she has full diplomatic immunity. The department of state disputes that, saying her immunity is more limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.