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US prosecutor fires back over arrest of Indian diplomat

 

The lead U.S. prosecutor in the case against an Indian diplomat now at the center of a diplomatic uproar fired back against those calling for her release, issuing a defiant statement defending the charges -- while potentially undermining State Department officials trying to tamp down the tension. 

Secretary of State John Kerry called India's national security adviser on Wednesday to personally express "regret" for the incident, in an indication that U.S. officials were scrambling to contain the furor

But U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who represents Manhattan, blasted the "misinformation and factual inaccuracy" surrounding the case. He claimed the "inflammatory atmosphere" that has developed is "unfounded," while cataloguing the litany of alleged offenses committed by the Indian diplomat in question. 

Devyani Khobragade stands accused of lying on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national. Prosecutors say the maid received $3 per hour for her work. 

"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?" Bharara said in his lengthy and detailed statement

"The question then may be asked: Is it for U.S. prosecutors to look the other way, ignore the law and the civil rights of victims (again, here an Indian national), or is it the responsibility of the diplomats and consular officers and their government to make sure the law is observed?" 

The case, since Khobragade's arrest last week in New York, has turned into an international incident. Indian officials claim the consular official's treatment was heavy-handed, complaining that she was strip-searched and claiming she was thrown in a cell with drug addicts. They've retaliated on several fronts, including by dragging away security barriers from outside the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. 

India's foreign minister has demanded that the U.S. drop federal charges against her. 

U.S. officials acknowledge Khobragade was strip-searched, but described it as standard procedure. Bharara further clarified that this was done in a private setting by a female officer. Bharara also disputed many of the claims about her treatment. He said she was, among other things, given coffee and offered food while detained. 

Bharara said Khobragade, who has pleaded not guilty, wasn't handcuffed, restrained or arrested in front of her children. 

Further, he said, she's alleged to have treated the housekeeper "illegally in numerous ways," paying her "far below" minimum wage and having her work far more than the amount of time contracted. Further, he said she was alleged to have created a second contract that was concealed from the U.S. government. Plus he said the victim's family had to be brought to the United States amid an attempt in India to "silence her." 

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told reporters on Thursday that Khobragade should never have been arrested, and that the housekeeper should have been arrested instead. 

Khurshid said he would speak to Kerry later Thursday. 

"This is an extremely distressing and hurtful incident that needs to be addressed," he said. 

Earlier Thursday, an official in India's External Affairs Ministry told the Associated Press that Khobragade claimed to Indian authorities in July that the maid had disappeared and was trying to blackmail her. According to the official, the housekeeper said she would not report Khobragade if she agreed to pay her more money and change her visa status to allow her to work elsewhere in the U.S. 

Khobragade filed a complaint with New York police and New Delhi police, the official said. It was not clear what action was taken in the U.S., but New Delhi police issued a warrant for the maid's arrest if she returned to India. 

News that Khobragade was strip-searched has chilled U.S.-Indian relations, and Kerry called India's national security adviser on Wednesday to express his regret over what happened. India has revoked privileges for U.S. diplomats in protest. 

Khobragade, who was India's deputy consul general in New York, would 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 hers is more limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. Her work status late Wednesday was unclear. 

Indian Consulate spokesman Venkatasamy Perumal said Khobragade was transferred Tuesday to India's U.N. mission, but he declined to comment further, and requests for comment to the U.N. mission's first secretary were not immediately returned. 

In an email published in Indian media on Wednesday, Khobragade said she was treated like a common criminal. 

"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," she wrote. 

Khobragade was arrested by the Department of State's diplomatic security team and then handed over to U.S. marshals in New York. She was later released after posting $250,000 bail. 

White House spokesman Jay Carney said "this isolated episode is not indicative of the close and mutually respectful ties" that the U.S. and India share. 

India retaliated against U.S. diplomats with measures that include revoking diplomat ID cards that brought certain privileges, demanding to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in U.S. Embassy households and withdrawing import licenses that allowed the commissary at the U.S. Embassy to import alcohol and food. 

On Wednesday, dozens of people protested outside the U.S. Embassy, saying Khobragade's treatment was an insult to Indian women. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.