Updated: 01/10/2014 19:31 | By Agence France-Presse

US, India reach deal to end feud over arrested diplomat

The United States and India ended a month-long feud over a diplomat who was arrested, strip-searched and charged with visa fraud in New York with a deal allowing the envoy to fly home Friday.

US, India reach deal to end feud over arrested diplomat

A group supporting domestic workers' rights demonstrate across the street from the Indian Consulate General in New York on December 20, 2013

The row began on December 12 when Indian consulate official Devyani Khobragade was arrested on suspicion of filing false documents to obtain a visa for her domestic servant and then underpaying her.

Her arrest outside her children's school and treatment in custody, where the mother-of-two said she was subjected to a cavity search, outraged India which claimed she benefited from diplomatic immunity. 

US prosecutors disputed this, leading New Delhi to request Washington to grant her a G1 visa given to diplomats at India's UN mission which is also in New York. 

"Devyani given G1 visa by USA according her full diplomatic immunity. India transfers her back. She is now flying home," Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in a tweet that confirmed the deal. 

Just hours earlier, prosecutors had filed charges in a New York court that accused Khobragade of forcing the maid to work 100-hour weeks, even when sick, and confiscating her passport.

The maid herself, Sangeeta Richard, issued a statement thanking rights groups and US officials for support.

"I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did –- you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you," she said, according to a statement reported by the Indian media.

The deal ends the row, but the two countries, which had embraced each other as strategic partners, must now count the cost of weeks of feisty exchanges which have left resentment on both sides.

India has removed extra security barriers at the US embassy in New Delhi, demanded contract details for domestic staff employed by American diplomats and even stopped the mission importing duty-free alcohol.

On Wednesday, it ordered an embassy leisure centre popular with American expatriates in the capital to stop admitting non-diplomatic members, while scheduled visits by US officials to India have been cancelled.

Setback to growing alliance

The United States through presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama has invested heavily in improving ties with India which it views as a key ally in its "pivot" to Asia, designed to check Chinese influence.

India has benefited from US backing to gain access to foreign nuclear energy technology and Washington has become an important arms supplier and key market for India's software and IT services exports.

"Both the governments now have the challenge to pick up the pieces and bring the partnership back on the rails," India's former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh told AFP.

The spat exposed a gulf in perceptions and values between the two countries.

Khobragade, a wealthy 39-year-old from a low-caste background, was seen at home as the victim of heavy-handed policing and her treatment a humiliation of India by the world's superpower. 

Domestic servants are routine for the middle classes in India where few employees have contracts, many are abused, and none make even a small fraction of the US minimum wage.

"We are proud Indians. We may be a poor country but we don't compromise the sovereignty of the country," Khobragade's defiant father, Uttam, told a press conference on Friday. 

"We as a family would not like to touch the soil of a country that treats a human being in such a way," he added, saying that Khobragade's children and American husband would follow her to India. 

But in the United States, there was little public sympathy for Khobragade, who prosecutors say was exploiting an employee with pay as little as $1.22 an hour after bringing her to New York under false pretences.

In New York on Thursday, Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the southern district of the city, informed a judge that a grand jury had filed two counts of visa fraud and making false statements against Khobragade.

In the indictment, the grand jury said Khobragade had obtained a visa for her maid by promising to pay her $4,500 a month, but then made a second secret contract with a salary of just 30,000 rupees ($573) a month.

This would be double the wages the maid would probably earn in New Delhi, but is substantially lower than the minimum wage in the US.

The indictment also accused Khobragade of forcing the servant to work nearly seven days a week without holidays or time off for illness. 

A statement from the Indian foreign ministry on Thursday read: "At the time of her departure to India, counsellor Khobragade reiterated her innocence of charges filed against her."

US Secretary of State John Kerry has voiced regret over Khobragade's treatment, but did not apologise.

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