(Adds Indian Embassy statement, paragraphs 15-17)
By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK, Dec 18 (Reuters) - The U.S. attorney in Manhattan defended on Wednesday the treatment of an Indian diplomat who was strip-searched after her arrest last week on charges of underpaying her nanny, a case that has strained U.S.-Indian relations.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, in an unusually lengthy written statement in a pending case, said he wanted to clear up the "misinformation" surrounding the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade, and he questioned why there was more sympathy for Khobragade than her alleged victim.
"Ms. Khobragade was accorded courtesies well beyond what other defendants, most of whom are American citizens, are accorded," Bharara said, adding that his sole motivation was to "hold accountable anyone who breaks the law - no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are."
He acknowledged that Khobragade had been "fully searched" by a female deputy marshal after her arrest. "This is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not," said Bharara, who was born in India, raised in New Jersey and has built a reputation as "The Sheriff of Wall Street" for his prosecution of insider trading cases.
India has been furious about what it considers the degrading treatment of a senior diplomat by the United States, a country it sees as a close friend, and retaliated on Tuesday by removing security barriers at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. The barriers would offer some protection against a suicide bomb attack.
Bharara's statement came after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the case with Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. Kerry called to express regret about the case and his concern it not hurt the two countries' relationship, the State Department said on Wednesday.
"As a father of two daughters about the same age as Devyani Khobragade, the secretary empathizes with the sensitivities we are hearing from India about the events that unfolded after Ms. Khobragade's arrest," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a written statement.
Khobragade was released on $250,000 bail after giving up her passport and pleading not guilty to charges of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid the housekeeper, an Indian national. She faces a maximum of 15 years in jail if convicted of both counts.
The U.S. Justice Department confirmed that Khobragade was strip-searched after her arrest. A senior Indian government source has also said the interrogation included a cavity search.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service, Nikki Credic-Barrett, said Khobragade did not undergo a cavity search but did go through a strip search. Under the agency's regulations governing prisoner searches, a strip search can include a "visual inspection" of body cavities, including the nose, mouth, genitals and anus, without intrusion.
Khobragade told colleagues in an email of "repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing" and being detained in a holding cell with petty criminals, despite her "incessant assertions of immunity."
While common in the United States, jail strip searches have prompted legal challenges from civil liberties groups concerned that the practice is degrading and unnecessary.
Ezekiel Edwards, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that despite a Supreme Court ruling last year upholding strip searches even in the absence of any suspicion the individual has contraband or weapons, law enforcement authorities should make an effort to distinguish between prisoners who merit invasive searches and those who pose no risk.
"Saying that it's not unusual is not to say that it should be acceptable," he said.
The Indian Embassy in Washington, in a written statement, accused the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, of blackmail in demanding that she be allowed to change her passport and visa status to work elsewhere.
The embassy also called on U.S. authorities to arrest Richard for stealing cash, a mobile phone and documents from Khobragade.
Bharara, in his statement, said Richard's family had been brought to the United States after legal efforts had begun in India "to silence her, and attempts were made to compel her to return to India."
Bharara denied media reports that Khobragade had been arrested in front of her children. "The agents arrested her in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained," he said.
Officers allowed her to make calls, including to arrange child care, and even brought her coffee, the prosecutor said.
Bharara said Khobragade clearly tried to evade U.S. law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers.
"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 said.
Richard is said to be upset and disappointed the focus of the affair has shifted.
"The victim in this case is not a criminal defendant but the person who was denied her wages and underpaid for her work," said Dana Sussman, an attorney with the Safe Horizon Anti-Trafficking Program who is representing Richard.
Khobragade falsely stated in her nanny's visa application that she would be paid $9.75 an hour, a figure that would have been in line with the minimum rates required by U.S. law, according to a statement issued last week by Bharara.
The diplomat had privately agreed with the domestic worker that she would receive just over a third of that rate, the U.S. attorney said.
Harf, the State Department spokeswoman, said Kerry had used the word "regret" in his conversation with Menon, but she declined to elaborate on whether this constituted an apology or to offer greater detail on their discussion.
An expression of regret, in the world of diplomacy, is generally viewed as something short of an outright apology.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration is looking into the arrest "to ensure that all standard procedures were followed and that every opportunity for courtesy was extended."
The White House has told Indian officials it expects New Delhi will "fulfil all its obligations" for the safety and security of U.S. diplomats in India, Carney said.
India has appointed Khobragade to its permanent mission at the United Nations and her attorney Daniel Arshack said that, in her new role, she would have diplomatic immunity from prosecution retroactively.
However, the State Department would have to sign off on a request to move her from the consulate to the U.N. mission, and no such request has been received, Harf told reporters. She said the U.S. government notified India of the allegations against Khobragade in September.
India and the United States have become close trade and security partners, but they have not totally overcome a history of distrust.
"It is no longer about an individual, it is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world," Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told parliament, whose usually fractious members showed rare unity on the issue.
Khurshid said work conditions of Indians employed in U.S. consulates would be investigated to root out any violations of labor laws, adding that there would be a freeze on the duty-free import of alcohol and food for diplomatic staff.
The Khobragade case is the latest concerning the Indian elite's alleged exploitation of their domestic workers, both at home and abroad.
Another official at India's consulate in New York was fined almost $1.5 million last year for using her maid as forced labor. Last month, the wife of a member of parliament was arrested in Delhi for allegedly beating her maid to death.
One Indian government minister, Shashi Tharoor, has argued that it is not reasonable to expect diplomats from developing countries to pay the U.S. minimum wage to domestic staff because the envoys themselves earn less than that. (Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Chris Francescani in New York and Shyamantha Asokan and Frank Jack Daniel in New Delhi; Writing by Jackie Frank and Eric Beech; Editing by Eric Walsh)