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Secretary Kerry expresses regret to India after diplomat strip-searched

Mohammed Jaffer / AP

Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general, during a fundraiser on Dec. 8.


Secretary of State John Kerry called India's national security adviser on Wednesday to express his regret after one of India's top diplomats was arrested on fraud charges and strip-searched in New York City, creating a rift between the two countries.

Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade is accused of submitting false documents to get a work visa for her Manhattan housekeeper, an Indian national she allegedly paid less than $3 per hour.

In an email to Indian newspapers published on Wednesday, Khobragade said American police did cavity searches on her after she was arrested and imprisoned on Dec. 12.

Lawmakers in New Delhi called her alleged treatment "despicable" and "barbaric," and responded by taking amenities away from the U.S. Embassy there

On Wednesday afternoon, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement that Kerry had called Indian National Security Adviser Shivshanker Menon to "express 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 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," the statement said.

"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."

Khobragade, 39, was arrested and handcuffed while dropping her daughter off at school, then held in a cell with drug addicts until she posted $250,000 bail, according to Indian officials.

She wrote of her arrest, "I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts, were all being imposed upon me, despite my incessant assertions of immunity."

U.S. Marshals confirmed in a statement that she was strip-searched following "standard arrestee intake procedures."

Khobragade is accused of visa fraud — lying to the State Department about the terms under which she sponsored a visa for a woman from India to come to the U.S. and work for her as a babysitter and housekeeper. Foreign diplomats and dconsular officials are allowed to get visas for people from their home countries to work for them in the U.S., but the employees must be paid the U.S. minimum age and can't be forced to work excessively.

According to the criminal complaint filed against her, Khobragade told the U.S. Embassy in India that her housekeeper would receive $4,500 a month and would work normal hours, at a rate of $9.75 an hour (which does not add up).

But, after the woman was given a visa to come to the U.S., prosecutors say Khobragade told the woman to sign a second contract — which the U.S. was not told about — paying her $3.31 an hour.

The housekeeper told U.S. authorities Khobragade subjected her to verbal abuse, paid her less than $3.31 an hour, took her passport away, and told her she had no choice but to continue working under those conditions, prosecutors say.

Khobragade was arrested by U.S. State Department diplomatic security personnel. As a consular employee, she has no immunity from prosecution for ordinary crimes.

Manhattan federal prosecutor Preet Bharara issued a lengthy statement Wednesday to “correct inaccuracies” he said were reported about the charges against Khobragade involving the maid and enumerated various ways the consular employee allegedly took advantage of the victim.

“And 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,” Bharara wrote.

“Finally, this Office’s sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law – no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are,” Bharara wrote.

On Tuesday, as tensions escalated between the U.S. and India, India decided to block perks at the U.S. Embassy such as inexpensive alcohol and food imports.

A small group of demonstrators held a protest close to the U.S. Embassy in Delhi on Wednesday, demanding an apology while wearing makeshift Obama masks and sarongs made from the American flag.

NBC's Alexander Smith contributed to this report.