As the diplomatic crisis over last week's arrest of Indian Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade appeared to get out of hand and to impact the developing close relations between the world's two largest democracies, Kerry, returning from his trip to the Philippines, called Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon to express his regret and concern.
A media statement issued by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Kerry's telephone conversation with the Indian official to discuss the Dec. 12 arrest of Khobragade, said:
"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 and ... he expressed his regret, as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India."
The diplomatic dispute stems from the arrest last week of Khobragade, 39, by New York authorities. She has been accused of submitting false documents for a work visa for her female housekeeper and paying the worker far below the local minimum wage. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges and remains free on a $250,000 bail.
Irate Indians said Khobragade was humiliated by being handcuffed near the school where she had gone to drop off her daughter and later strip-searched. Some Indian television reports also said she was subjected to a cavity search.
The State Department statement said: "The secretary understands very deeply the importance of enforcing our laws and protecting victims, and, like all officials in positions of responsibility inside the U.S. government, expects that laws will be followed by everyone here in our country. It is also particularly important to Secretary Kerry that foreign diplomats serving in the United States are accorded respect and dignity just as we expect our own diplomats should receive overseas."
The incident has so outraged India that its politicians from various political parties have been demanding strong retaliatory steps and demanding a high-level unconditional apology from the United States.
Other retaliatory steps have included reports of security concrete blocks being moved from around the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, taking away the identifications cards of U.S. diplomats that afford them diplomatic benefits and refusal of some senior Indian officials and ministers to meet with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation. The Hindustan Times reported India also stopped most imports by the U.S. Embassy and called for details of salaries paid to Indian staff and domestic help.
It was not immediately clear if Kerry's use of the word "regret" would meet India's demand for an apology. Harf did not elaborate on Kerry's comment. Practically her entire media briefing Wednesday was taken up by the fast-paced developments in the Khobragade incident.
Separately, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration of President Barack Obama was looking into the arrest incident to ensure "every opportunity for courtesy was extended" and that the administration had informed Indian officials it expects India to meet all its obligations to ensure the safety and security of U.S. diplomats.
Obama also had been briefed about the issue.
The U.S. Marshals Service has been quoted as saying Khobragade was strip-searched after her arrest and was kept in a cell with other females. The USMS also has been quoted as saying standard procedures were followed and that no policies were violated in her case.
Obama has been seeking to strengthen relations with New Delhi as India's role is seen as critical as the United States rebalances in the Asia-Pacific region.
In her earlier statement, Harf noted the two countries "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."
Khobragade reportedly had "consular immunity," which under the Vienna Convention apparently is not as high as "diplomatic immunity" in the prosecution of criminal cases.
Some Indian media reports say Khobragade may be transferred to India's permanent mission at the United Nations to enable her to have diplomatic immunity, which would mean immunity from prosecution on the charges facing her. If convicted on those charges, she could face a maximum of 15 years in jail.
Harf explained any diplomatic transfer of Khobragade within the United States would need to be signed off by the State Department.
CNN's sister Indian channel CNN-IBN quoted India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as saying Khobragade's treatment is "deplorable."
On the removal of the security barriers at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, Nicholas Burns, former U.S. undersecretary of state, told CNN the move was a "very dangerous one" and an "overreaction."
Separately, a spokesman for India's External Affairs Ministry was quoted as saying: "Let me assure you that there is no change in the security situation as regards to any diplomats in India, including U.S. diplomats. India is fully committed to ensuring the safety and security of all diplomats in Delhi and elsewhere."
Writing for the BBC on the current diplomatic rift, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley said instead of strengthening bilateral relations, "the two countries are deep into a lengthy period of crisis management."
Crowley said the arrest of a diplomat is never just another case. "If the State Department did not know she would be strip-searched, it should have -- and should have demanded special handling."
He said the United States could have declared Khobragade persona non grata, demanded her immediate departure and refused further work visas for domestic help for Indian diplomats.
"On the Indian side, it is unclear why the Indian ambassador to the United States or the country's Foreign Ministry failed to clean house when first alerted by U.S. authorities," Crowley said. "Indian diplomats surely understand that disrespecting U.S. law and international norms undermine its emergence as a constructive global actor."
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