|An obstacle to U.S.-Indian relations|
So many unintended consequences have flowed from that simple arrest in New York City five days ago.
The criminal allegation made by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (here) and its supporting statement by a Diplomatic Security agent (here) are clear enough: The Indian Deputy Vice Consul in New York, a nice looking lady named Dr. Devyani Khobrange, committed visa fraud and made false statements, felonies that could put her in prison for up to 15 years.
The circumstances of Dr. Devyani Khobrange's arrest are not so clear. She wasn't fleeing, she wasn't accused of a violent crime, and she is a foreign diplomat. So why pull her out of her car when she was taking her kids to school and do the whole handcuffs-strip search-holding cell routine before cutting her loose on bail? Is that normal treatment for a white collar criminal in New York (I doubt it), or was the U.S. Attorney trying to make a point?
The Indian Embassy in Washington "immediately conveyed its strong concerns to the U.S. Government" (here) over our treatment of their Deputy Vice Consul, and made counter allegations about the Indian domestic servant who was the object of Dr. Khobrange's alleged visa fraud and is now our witness in the criminal case against her. They even asked the U.S. government to extradite our witness back to India. Good luck!
Some commenters in India pointed out that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was born in India to a Sikh father and a Hindu mother, and hinted at some mysterious ethnic feud between him and Dr. Khobrange, who is from the Dalit caste. I can't even guess whether that motive is at all plausible; the question wouldn't have come up if the U.S. Attorney were named John Smith, however.
Meanwhile, the Indian government has gone completely over the top, calling in the U.S. Ambassador, harassing U.S. diplomats in India by yanking some airport access and import privileges and threatening to withdraw their diplomatic identity cards, going on a witch hunt for any of our locally engaged staff in India who might be underpaid, and finally, removing concrete vehicle barriers that they had previously allowed us to place on a public street outside our embassy compound in the diplomatic quarter of New Delhi.
And, of course, the biggest question of all is, what kind of legal immunity does Dr. Khobrange enjoy? Is it full diplomatic, or the more limited type of consular immunity, and how does that affect her prosecution for visa fraud?
This is a puzzling situation about a delicate matter of diplomatic relations. So you can imagine how anxious I was to hear State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf explain everything during the daily press briefing this afternoon. She did not disappoint.
MS. HARF: Okay. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to say on the steps announced by Indian Government today on the – withdrawing some of the consular facilities provided to Indian diplomats inside – U.S. diplomats in India and withdrawing the security parameters [surely "perimeters" not parameters] outside the embassy in opposition to the steps – arrest of Indian diplomats in New York?
MS. HARF: Well, a couple points on this. I think you probably saw the statement that I put out just before coming out here, that the U.S. and India enjoy a broad and deep friendship, and this isolated episode is not in any way indicative of the close and respectful ties that we share and will continue to share. We have conveyed at high levels to the Government of India our expectations that India will continue to fulfill all of its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and Vienna Convention – on Consular Relations, excuse me.
Obviously, the safety and security of our diplomats and consular officers in the field is a top priority. We’ll continue to work with India to ensure that all of our diplomats and consular officers are being afforded full rights and protections. Also, of course, safety and security of our facilities as well is something we take very seriously, and we’ll keep working with the Indians on that.
QUESTION: Why wasn’t that in the statement?
MS. HARF: Because it was a short statement and I knew I’d get lots of questions on it in the briefing. I mean, there’s – I have a lot of information on this we can talk about in the briefing.
-- snip --
QUESTION: Your comment about how you have conveyed to the Indian Government at the highest levels or --
MS. HARF: At high levels, I said.
QUESTION: -- at high levels --
MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- that you expect them to uphold the Vienna Convention – is that a reference to the fact that Indian police today removed security barriers around the Embassy?
MS. HARF: Certainly part of it.
MS. HARF: Certainly part of it.
QUESTION: So did you see the Indian police removing those security barriers as a reflection of their unhappiness at the treatment of their diplomat in New York?
MS. HARF: I’d let them speak for what the reasoning was behind it, certainly.
-- snip --
QUESTION: Marie, have you actually asked for them to rescind these measures that they took today, particularly the ones about the security barriers?
MS. HARF: I can double-check and see if we have more details about the diplomatic conversations. We’ve been very clear that they need to uphold all of their obligations under the Vienna Convention, and in terms of security, we’ll keep working with them on that as well. Again, our focus here is on moving the bilateral relationship forward, that this one isolated episode not impact the bilateral relationship.
QUESTION: Do you feel that measures that were taken were actually proportionate to what happened to the deputy general consul in New York last week?
[TSB note: Ms. Harf strayed off the topic a bit here, talking about measures the State Department had taken.]
QUESTION: But I think my question was more – are the measures, were the measures taken by the Indian – Indians’ government proportionate to what --
MS. HARF: Oh, I see. Measures by the Indian Government.
QUESTION: Indian Government, yes.
MS. HARF: Proportionate to what?
QUESTION: To the arrest in New York of a deputy consul general.
-- snip --
QUESTION: So just to put a fine point on it, if you’re saying that [the arrest in New York and the measures the Indian government has taken against U.S. Embassy personnel in India] shouldn’t be linked and then you’re saying that they shouldn’t take actions against your diplomats in a response to one of their diplomats being arrested, even if it was handled possibly in an improper way?
MS. HARF: Well, again, at this point there are no indications that it was, as I said just a second ago. Let me go back to this --
QUESTION: Even if they have concerns with the way she was treated, it sounds like you’re saying, just to put a fine point on it, that the Indian Government should not take punitive measures against your diplomats in response to an incident that they feel one of their diplomats was (inaudible).
MS. HARF: Certainly, we have called on them to uphold all of their obligations under the Vienna Convention, everything that they are obligated to do and according our diplomats rights and all of the things that go under the Vienna Convention.
-- snip --
QUESTION: Now could you talk – you talked a little bit about it, but you said you would get us some more answers on this diplomat’s – this deputy consul general’s diplomatic status. Could you expand on that a little bit?
MS. HARF: Well, I don’t think I said I’d get on theirs specifically. I said there are different kinds of immunity – diplomatic immunity, consular immunity, I think there are a couple of other kinds. I have asked our folks to sort of lay out very explicitly, hopefully to be released as a TQ, exactly what all of those mean. But generally speaking, right, diplomatic immunity applies sort of across the board – again, this is a very general and the lawyers are probably going to be mad at me – but consular immunity only applies to things done in the actual functions of one’s job. And this just isn’t for diplomats in the U.S., of course; it’s for our diplomats overseas as well.
QUESTION: Now, even if a diplomat doesn’t have diplomatic immunity or consular immunity --
QUESTION: What’s the difference, by the way, between diplomatic immunity and consular immunity. I don’t understand that.
MS. HARF: Well, diplomatic immunity applies to everything. Consular immunity only applies to official functions in – that one performs in the duty of their job.
QUESTION: So is this person – does this person enjoy diplomatic immunity?
MS. HARF: Consular immunity.
QUESTION: Only consular?
MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Why don’t they enjoy diplomatic immunity, given that they are a diplomat?
MS. HARF: Well, she’s the consul general at a consulate.
MS. HARF: I can double-check the exact specifics for who falls under what. I know it’s different everywhere. And again, this applies to our folks overseas as well.
QUESTION: So – but that would be good to get clear.
-- snip --
QUESTION: One of the allegations that clearly has the Indian Government most angered --
MS. HARF: Yes.
QUESTION: -- is that she has said to have been strip searched. The question is whether you know – I mean, I can understand it would be embarrassing to admit it, but it’s also just a factual matter. And if --
MS. HARF: I don’t speak for other government agencies, actually. I speak for the State Department, and that allegation --
QUESTION: And the State Department is not aware of whether or not she was strip-searched? Because the State Department presumably wants to know whether or not she was strip-searched so that it can deal --
MS. HARF: Again, we’re looking --
QUESTION: Can I finish? So it can deal with the Indian Government.
MS. HARF: Let me finish.
QUESTION: Go right ahead. So you don’t want to know whether she was strip searched?
MS. HARF: That’s why we’re looking into what transpired right now.
QUESTION: So you don’t know?
MS. HARF: That’s why we’re looking to get – I don’t have all the facts. No. I wasn’t there.
QUESTION: Do you know that fact?
MS. HARF: I don’t know what – I do not know the facts about exactly what happened and I’m not going to stand up here and say what I’ve heard or what I haven’t heard or what allegations are out there.
QUESTION: But if you don’t know, I’m willing to accept that. That was my question.
MS. HARF: I’m not telling you I haven’t heard anything – I’ve heard about the allegations.
-- snip --
MS. HARF: Yep. On this still?
QUESTION: Can we change topics?
QUESTION: No, I’ve got one more. Sorry. It was mentioned by my colleague that one of the issues was the withdrawal of all ID cards issued by the Ministry of External Affairs. How is that going to affect the work that your diplomats do on the ground in India?
MS. HARF: Well, we certainly don’t want any of the measures that he outlined to affect our work on the ground in India because it’s such an important relationship. We work together on so many important issues. And that’s why we’ll keep talking to the government about how to move forward.
QUESTION: What are they actually used for on a day-to-day basis?
MS. HARF: I can double-check. I can double-check.
QUESTION: Have they actually taken those measures that he described, or you don’t know?
MS. HARF: I’m not sure. I’ll double-check. I’ll double-check with --
QUESTION: Is it true that if the diplomat doesn’t have that ID the diplomat can be arrested by the local police or --
MS. HARF: I’ll check. I’ll check. I don’t know.
Given a political matter this sensitive, a legal situation this complicated, and with so many facts still so elusive, I look forward to many more daily press conferences just like this one.
Here's my question for Marie Harf: "Who do you want to play you in the inevitable Law and Order episode based on this incident, which is no doubt even now being written?"