United States marshalls handcuff and strip search India’s deputy consul in New York City, Devyani Khobragade, on charges she underpays her household assistant. The marshalls defend their practice of strip searching everyone they take into custody. According to the marshalls, they treated the Indian diplomat no differently from everyone else they arrest.
Do you know how a strip search works? First, it depends on whether you are handcuffed or not. It also depends on whether you resist the order to take off your clothes. Now matter how it happens, you are forced to remove every item of clothing. When you are completely nude, officers check you carefully for drugs, weapons, explosives, and anything else they want to check you for. As part of the procedure, officers conduct what they euphemistically call a “cavity search.” For women, that means they search your anus and your vagina for contraband. When they have satisfied themselves that you have not concealed anything from them, they cease their inspection and permit you to get dressed.
Let’s be clear about the reasons for this practice. The specific results of the search are secondary. Authorities almost never find anything they could not have found with a routine pat-down. The reason they conduct this type of search is to establish control over you, to demean, degrade and humiliate you in a way that leaves no doubt about who holds power in the situation. If they can do this to me, the victim of the search understands, they can do anything to me. If I don’t do exactly as they say, who knows what might follow?
The police now conduct strip searches with no reason to think the prisoner has concealed anything that would remain hidden during normal search methods. They conduct these searches without an attorney or any other third party present. The victim is handcuffed, transported to the police station, conducted from the vehicle to the building, registered, led to a closed room, forced to remove all his or her clothing, then examined according to the manner described above.
These methods violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches. In Devyani Khobragade’s case, the procedure violates diplomatic immunity, common decency and common sense. Our law enforcers humiliate us before the world when they treat one our guests this way. We have used the phrase police state loosely here. A police state is gradually taking shape as we watch.
Here’s a quotation from a related article:
The US state department said that Ms Khobragade does not have full diplomatic immunity. It said under the UN’s Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, she is immune from arrest only for crimes committed in connection with her work.
Brainless acts, like strip searching a senior diplomat, force you to engage in doubletalk in order to justify them. You are immune from arrest “only for crimes committed in connection with your work”? How could any signatory to the Vienna Convention conceive that consular immunity applies only to official activities that the host country decides are criminal? What diplomat goes about committing crimes in order to fulfill official responsibilities?
We see in this argument how the surveillance state thinks. The United States wants to send spies to other countries, attach them to embassies and consulates, and have them be immune from prosecution, no matter what underhanded activities they undertake in the host countries. It understands that other countries will do the same. If you catch a spy doing something you don’t like, your only recourse is to send the person home. That’s how international law related to espionage from embassies works.
You cannot take rules that govern espionage, argue that these rules define the entire concept of diplomatic immunity, then say that diplomatic immunity does not apply to a dispute about how much a diplomat pays her household assistant. Diplomatic immunity means that host countries cannot prosecute diplomats, unless perhaps the diplomat does something so heinous you would hesitate to send the person home. The concept of immunity, as every country understands it, requires that parties to the employment contract in question must resolve their dispute under Indian law, not under U. S. law.
If diplomatic immunity does not apply here, it applies nowhere beyond acts undertaken by spies. Washington’s argument to defend its arrest of Dr. Khobragade indicates that the entire concept of diplomatic immunity is irrelevant to normal disputes. To determine whether our behavior is defensible in this case, imagine that Indian security officers arrest an American deputy consul in Mumbai, strip search her, and prosecute her. How would our reaction to those acts differ from India’s reaction to ours?
Without a doubt, the feds’ justification for strip-searching Devyani Khobragade appears as thoughtless as the act itself.
Devyani Khobragade is one courageous woman, for often when people commit shameful acts against you, you feel shamed. That is the horrible effect of crimes against the body, especially against women.
We would not know what happened to Dr. Khobragade, unless she had written a detailed email message to her colleagues to relate what happened to her the day the State Department had her arrested. She knew her message would become public, and had to rely on the hope of others’ good will for support. Here is part of what she wrote:
“While I was going through it, although I must admit that 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, I got the strength to regain composure and remain dignified thinking that I must represent all of my colleagues and my country with confidence and pride,” she said in her email, the Times of India reported.
Indignity is the point of this treatment. Thank God she got through this experience unbroken, with courage to communicate these practices to her country and to the rest of the world. The world has to see what is going on here. We cannot stop what is happening here without help.
The American press is filled with references to Indians’ sensitivities about strip searches and the dignity of women. The media suggest that police must take care before they apply standard intake procedures to people from other countries. Then listen to Maria Harf, spokesperson for the State Department, use her public relations skills to minimize the significance of this incident for U.S. – India relations. The press reports her comments above everything else.
The spokesperson for the Indian government is correct: strip searches are inherently “barbaric and despicable.” They are demeaning and indefensible. Cavity searches have become a form of institutionalized humiliation, psychological and physical coercion that we condemn on human rights grounds when we observe it in other countries. They should not be a routine part of an arrest for anyone. When we let the press and government PR people smooth everything over, we promote the idea that Khobragade’s experience with the U. S. marshalls was especially unfortunate, but otherwise everything is okay. Everything is not okay.