By Arun Kumar
Washington, Dec 20 (IANS) Is the US decision to arrest and strip search Indian diplomat Devyani Khobrgade on charges of visa fraud, sparking a major diplomatic row with what it calls an “incredibly important” partner, a case of classic American double standards?
It would appear so going by at least two recent cases relating to Saudi Arabian and Russian diplomats.
At Thursday’s State Department press briefing, spokesperson Marie Harf had no clear answer to the difference in the treatment of Khobragade and “Saudi diplomats who allegedly committed even more egregious crimes.”
According to the questioner, two Filipino women were rescued escaping the Saudi diplomatic military attaché’s residence in a Washington suburb. But “no Saudi diplomats have been charged, none of them have been cavity-searched.”
All that Harf could say in response was that she “was not aware of all the details of that case” and didn’t “want to make a comparison about why something was or wasn’t done.
“Each case is different, though,” she suggested. “Obviously, we take any (such) allegation very seriously and we investigate them when they’re brought to our attention.”
But the case against the Russians really takes the cake particularly since it took place in the very borough Manhattan’s India-born US attorney Preet Bharara, who has brazenly defended his actions against Khobragade as based on the principle of equality before law.
His 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,” he said.
It took his office ten long years to make a case against 49 Russian diplomats and their spouses charged with scamming Medicaid, a government health care programme for low-income families, out of $1.5 million over a decade. All of them worked in New York either at the Russian mission to the UN, the Russian consulate or the Russian trade representation office when they committed the alleged fraud.
But Bharara could not lay his hands on any of them. For by the time he filed charges just a week before he chose to act against Khobragade, only 11 of them remained in the US. But none has been taken into custody as they all have diplomatic immunity.
Ten of them are diplomats working with the Russian mission to the UN and their spouses, and one is now stationed at the Russian embassy in Washington. But at the time of the charged offences, he was employed at the consulate in New York.
Harf Thursday suggested that Khobragade, who has been transferred to India’s permanent mission to the UN, would not have “retroactive” immunity after her change of status from consular officer to diplomat. If so, how come, the Russian diplomat working in Washington is roaming free when the offence he is charged with took place when he worked at the Russian consulate in New York?
“Diplomacy should be about extending hands, not picking pockets in the host country,” said Bharara at a press conference announcing the charges which have next to no chance of moving forward.
But Harf was more circumspect in saying they were still “reviewing the charges” and “the relationship is much bigger and deeper and broader and more complicated than that.”
Like in Khobragade’s case, Bharara’s actions sparked outrage in Russia.
Rejecting the charges, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Moscow had many claims against the behaviour of US diplomats in Moscow but had preferred not to bring them into the public sphere.
It has been two weeks since the charges were filed against the Russians. But to date Moscow has not waived their immunity nor has Washington asked them to leave!
(Arun Kumar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)