Foreign Secretary raises Headley issue in Washington

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Washington, December 13:  On her maiden visit to the U.S. in her official capacity, Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh raised New Delhi’s request for further access to one of the masterminds of the Mumbai attacks, David Coleman Headly, who is currently in U.S. custody facing a 35-year prison sentence.

The U.S.’ response to Ms. Singh’s queries in this matter was that they were “working on it,” sources familiar with the subject said. In January 2013 Mr. Headley successfully struck a plea bargain with the U.S. Department of Justice in a bid to escape facing the death penalty.

Under the terms of the bargain the U.S. is said to have guaranteed that Mr. Headley cannot be extradited to any country including India and also could not be handed over to Indian authorities for questioning.

In a flurry of high-level meetings with senior State Department and Congressional officials, both sides picked up the thread of dialogue after the visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September, and also sought to chart a course for the bilateral relationship through 2014.

Ms. Singh held discussions with the newly appointed Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Biswal, Deputy Secretary William Burns, and the Under Secretary at the Department of Commerce, Eric Hirschhorn.

Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly “dropped in” for 15 minutes or so despite Washington being virtually shut down in the wake of snowy weather here.

She also discussed the civilian nuclear agreement and shale gas supply with Daniel Poneman, Deputy Secretary of Energy, the transition to defence co-production and co-development with James Miller, Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, and strategic security issues with Rose Gottemoeller, Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security.

Two countries of mutual interest – Iran and Afghanistan – also featured in the conversations that Ms. Singh had here. On Iran sources said that the U.S. side expressed appreciation for India’s continued reductions in oil imports, although advised that sanctions relief would be unlikely to follow unless there was clear evidence that Teheran was complying with the terms of the agreement signed with the P5+1 nations.

Similarly on Afghanistan the impression conveyed to the Indian side was that in the wake of President Hamid Karzai not yet signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. after the Loya Jirga approved it, the U.S. may be unable to take the “zero option” for troops off the table.

In this context officials were said to have emphasised the positive role that India could play in prevailing upon Mr. Karzai, who is currently in New Delhi on a visit, to consider signing the BSA.

Ms. Singh also used the opportunity to press home India’s concern regarding the immigration bill under consideration in Congress, particularly as the Senate proposals for reform suggest steep hikes in the fees levied for the H-1B non-immigrant work visa, of which Indian companies are the largest beneficiaries worldwide.

Sources also indicated that she gleaned from her conversations that there has been a “let-up in the negative coverage” on intellectual property protection in India, including criticism of recent judicial decisions impacting large western pharmaceutical companies and India’s reliance on compulsory licensing in certain sectors of the economy.

Among the issues that were not discussed were the questions of the U.S. denial of a visa to Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat and prime ministerial candidate of the BJP; and also the matter of the U.S. National Security Agency spying on Indian targets including Indian diplomatic posts in Washington and New York.

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