India retaliates against US diplomats

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:16am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:16am

New Delhi has sought details about staff in American schools in India, looking for possible tax violations, and has revoked identity cards of US consular officials and their families, retaliatory steps for the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York.

The measures suggest that the two countries are no closer to a resolution of a diplomatic dispute over the treatment of Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade this month on charges of visa fraud and underpayment of her housekeeper.

Khobragade, who has denied the charges, was handcuffed and strip-searched while in custody, sparking outrage in India.

An Indian government official said New Delhi had asked the US embassy to provide details about people working in American schools and other US government facilities to determine if they had permission to do so and if they were paying taxes that are mandatory under Indian law.

Diplomats' spouses who take up work in schools or other embassy facilities are supposed to inform the host country.

Violations of this kind have often been ignored, but now India will not turn a blind eye, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The US embassy declined to comment on the latest steps.

India had also withdrawn some privileges US diplomats and their families enjoy and will treat them as Indian officials are treated in the United States, the Indian official said.

US Ambassador Nancy Powell has been refused special privileges at New Delhi airport.

"We have said all access is on a reciprocal basis," the government official said. "She is not going to get the benefits that the Indian ambassador in the US doesn't get."

US consular officials and their families have been asked to surrender identity cards that gave them a degree of immunity.

Under a new regime, consular officials - but not their families - will be given ID cards with fewer privileges.

"Spouses and children have no more immunity. So if there is a parking offence or … something else happening in Bangalore et cetera, they would be held liable," the Indian official said.

Khobragade was released in New York on US$250,000 bail after giving up her passport and pleading not guilty to visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her Indian housekeeper. She faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted on both counts.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed regret over the case, but India is still demanding that the charges be dropped and that the United States apologises.

US prosecutors have defended the investigation against Khobragade and her treatment.

Before this diplomatic blow-up, US-Indian relations were seen as cordial and improving.

In a new twist, India now argues that Khobragade was accredited to the United Nations at the time of her detention, giving her immunity from arrest.

She was temporarily moved to India's UN mission in August.

But according to the UN Manual of Protocol website, a country's UN ambassador must write to the UN secretary general to request privileges and immunities. The United Nations then submits this to the US mission to the United Nations for approval.