The arrest of an Indian diplomat last week has sparked an international row, particularly after word spread in India that the accused had been placed in a cell with “drug addicts” and strip-searched by U.S. authorities, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Indian deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade had been arrested on Thursday on federal charges of visa fraud, accused of falsifying documents for her maid and paying her a fraction of the federal minimum wage. India reacted by taking steps to downgrade the privileges of American diplomats and their families who reside in the subcontinent.

Whether the accusations against Khobragade are true, Khobragade’s lawyer is pleading not guilty on the grounds that she enjoys diplomatic and consular immunity from criminal prosecution within the U.S. jurisdiction, as the New York Daily News reports. But how far does diplomatic immunity really go?

7 Craziest Intelligence Leaks in U.S. History

As the U.S. State Department notes on its website (PDF), privileges and immunities for diplomats are established in the the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 (VCDR) and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1969 (VCCR). Additional privileges may be agreed upon bilaterally between nations.

Diplomatic immunity isn’t a license to abuse the law in a host country, and the Vienna Conventions emphasize a duty to follow local laws. In the Khobragade case, the United States is asserting that immunity only extends to actions committed as part of her function with the consulate.

Even if diplomats do avoid prosecution by a host nation, a country can declare a diplomat personae non gratae for any reason and expel that person and his or her family. Last year, for example, the United States declared three Venezuelan diplomats personae non gratae, after Venezuela made a similar move, accusing three U.S. diplomats of conspiring to bring down the government.

What’s It Really Like to Be a Spy?

In extreme cases, if a diplomat commits a serious crime, a host country may ask for a waiver from the official’s home nation. This happened in 1997 when Deputy Ambassador of the Republic of Georgia, Gueorgui Makharadze, committed vehicular manslaughter. Though initially released because of diplomatic immunity, Georgia waived his immunity for a criminal case to proceed. After Makharadze was tried and served out his sentence in the United States, he returned to Georgia where he served additional jail time.

Diplomatic immunity gives agents of foreign governments broad latitude in carrying out the necessary functions of state business. But as the Khobragade case and others show, diplomats are placed under a close microscope when they fall out of favor with local authorities, and their actions can draw anger and embarrassment of an entire nation looking on.

Photo: Getty Images