NEW DELHI -- India's foreign minister demanded Thursday that the United States drop the case against a diplomat who was arrested and strip-searched in New York City, saying she was the victim of a blackmail attempt by her housekeeper.
The case has sparked a diplomatic furor between the United States and India, which is incensed over what its officials describe as degrading treatment of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York.
Khobragade, 39, is accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her Manhattan housekeeper, an Indian national. According to prosecutors, Khobragade claimed she paid the woman $4,500 a month, but actually paid her around $3 per hour.
The case has sparked widespread outrage in India, where the idea of an educated, middle-class woman facing a strip-search is almost unheard of, except in the most extraordinary crimes. In an unusual step, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan publicly defended Khobragade's treatment, and questioned why there was more outrage over Khobragade than for the housekeeper.
On Thursday, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid took issue with the entire premise of the case and accused the housekeeper of blackmail. He told reporters that the housekeeper had threatened over the summer to go to the police unless Khobragade arranged a new passport for her, along with a work visa and a large sum of money.
"We need to remember the simple fact that there is only one victim in this case," Khurshid said. "That victim is Devyani Khobragade -- a serving Indian diplomat on mission in the United States."
Khurshid did not say how much money the housekeeper allegedly demanded. But two top Indian officials said she asked for $10,000 in the presence of an immigration lawyer and two other witnesses. Both officials have close knowledge of the case, but spoke on condition that their names not be published because of the sensitivity of the case.
Khurshid also said the U.S. attorney had ignored the fact that a legal case was already under way in India in the dispute between the housekeeper and the diplomat. Khobragade notified authorities in New York and Delhi over the summer that she was being blackmailed, and the Delhi police launched a case against the woman, Indian officials said.
"When the legal process in another friendly and democratic country is interfered with in this manner, it not only amounts to interference, but also raises the serious concern of calling into question the very legal system of that country," said Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the External Affairs Ministry.
Khobragade's case has chilled U.S.-Indian relations, and India has revoked privileges for U.S. diplomats in protest. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry called India's National Security Adviser on Wednesday to express his regret over what happened.
Khurshid said he would speak to Kerry later Thursday.
"This is an extremely distressing and hurtful incident that needs to be addressed," he said. "We hope our concerns will be addressed. And if the U.S. has any concerns that we need to address, we will examine them."
Khurshid also said that India did not want to sour relations with the United States over the issue, but would insist on the return of its diplomat and the dropping of charges against her. "We are keen that no damage of an irreversible nature should happen to our relationship," he said.
Khobragade could face a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration if convicted. She has said she has full diplomatic immunity. The Department of State disputes that, saying her immunity is limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. Her work status Thursday was unclear.
Indian consulate spokesman Venkatasamy Perumal said Khobragade was transferred this week to India's U.N. mission, but he declined to comment further, and requests for comment to the U.N. mission's first secretary were not immediately returned.
India retaliated against U.S. diplomats with measures that included revoking diplomat ID cards that brought certain privileges, demanding to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in U.S. Embassy households, and withdrawing import licenses that allowed the commissary at the U.S. Embassy to import alcohol and food.
The U.S. Marshals Service confirmed it had strip-searched Khobragade and placed her in a cell with other female defendants last Thursday, saying the measures are "standard arrestee intake procedures."
On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Khobragade was treated very well, even given coffee and offered food while detained.
"One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country," Bharara said, making the highly unusual move of issuing a lengthy statement addressing issues not in a criminal complaint.
The Khobragade case touches a nerve in part because there have been a series of controversies involving Indians exploiting domestic workers, and the salaries paid to housekeepers and other workers in India are far lower than those paid in the United States.
Having a live-in maid or part-time domestic help is common in Indian households, even among the lower and middle classes. A salary of $3 an hour, or around $24 for an eight-hour day, is more than what a well-paid maid would earn in New Delhi or Mumbai.
Typical salaries for full-time, live-in maids range from $100 to $150 per month, with most families also offering lodging, food, clothes and medical assistance.