Mumbai: A spat over the alleged detention and search of US diplomat Wendy Washington by customs officials at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) recently has created unpleasantness in ties between the US consulate and the Customs Department.
In a strongly worded letter, Washington has complained to the customs commissioner at CSMIA about the alleged harassment, illegal detention, high- handed and rude behaviour by certain customs officers which was in violation of the Geneva Convention.
What are the diplomat's allegations?
According to the complaint, Washington was detained on October 28 night when she landed from Bangkok and her baggage was searched. She alleged that customs deputy commissioner Sanjeev Chetule detained her for over 30 minutes despite her diplomatic status and spoke rudely when her senior embassy security official called to intervene.
"The incident was the result of a misunderstanding. We follow diplomatic protocol as per Standard Operating Procedure. Our senior customs officer has personally called the diplomat and apologised for the inconvenience caused to her," a senior customs officer said.
According to sources in the airport customs, the flight from Bangkok was flagged for contraband gold and the diplomat was wearing several gold bracelets and ornaments. “She was asked to step aside and asked to provide details of the gold ornaments. The customs officer failed to differentiate the deep maroon color of the diplomatic passport because of poor light and asked her to present her baggage for scanning. The moment diplomat revealed her identity a senior customs officer rushed and ensured she was provided proper protocol,” explained a customs official who was on duty during the alleged altercation between the diplomat and customs.
CSMIA customs department denies misconduct
Mumbai Airport Customs denied any misconduct in asking the diplomat about the gold bracelets and ornaments. The officers alleged that Washington created ruckus when asked about her gold jewellery. “She was not in the protocol list provided by the US consulate about their staff arriving in Mumbai. All diplomatic courtesy is provided to the consular staff of all nations as per rules,” said an airport customs protocol officer.
US Consulate Public Affairs officer and Washington did not respond to e-mails from the FPJ for a comment.
Poor inter-personal skills blamed on incident
Senior customs officials blamed the poor training and low morale amongst the frontline preventive officers posted at the airport for the incident.
“Some officers are on prolonged extension at the airport even after completing their tenure and transfer to other posts. The trend of illegal extension and poor inter-personal skills in dealing with passengers has led rot in the system which needs a complete overhaul,” a former airport customs commissioner observed.
Incidentally, Mumbai Airport customs has been plagued by several cases of corruption and extortion registered by the CBI in the past nine months.