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December 22, 2013

Handling of Indian diplomat unpleasant but typical

NEW YORK — It has sparked protests outside the American embassy in New Delhi. Burnings of President Barack Obama’s photo. And angry speeches by Indian officials.

But the arrest — and, yes, even the strip search — of an Indian diplomat accused of visa fraud also revealed a simple and longstanding reality of the U.S. justice system: Everyone charged with a crime here is supposed to be treated the same, whether wealthy or destitute, prominent or ordinary, citizen or foreigner.

“There is a remarkable and almost charming egalitarianism in it,” said New York City defense attorney Ron Kuby. “Everybody is treated in exactly the same disrespectful, casually brutal and arrogant fashion.”

The United States is the only place where “the rich as well as the poor get to sleep on cold floors and urinate in overflowing toilets — together.”

Indian officials have been fuming over the way federal marshals handled Devyani Khobragade, the country’s deputy consul general in New York, calling the treatment degrading and inhumane. Yet most Americans would find the procedures fairly typical for a criminal case — though certainly not pleasant.

Khobragade, who was arrested last week outside her daughter’s school, complained that she was strip-searched and held in a cell “with drug addicts” until her appearance before a judge.

She posted $250,000 bail and was released. And she insists she is not guilty of charges she submitted false documents to obtain a visa for an Indian woman who worked as her housekeeper in Manhattan.

The case stirred widespread outrage in India, where the idea of an educated, middle-class woman being strip-searched is almost unheard of, except in the most extraordinary crimes. The fear of public humiliation resonates strongly there, and heavy-handed treatment by the police is normally reserved for the poor.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who brought the charges, was born in India and raised here. He said the diplomat was “fully searched” by a female deputy, which is “standard practice for every defendant ... in order to make sure that no prisoner keeps anything on his person that could harm anyone, including himself.”

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