US refuses to back down over criticism of Indian opposition leader’s arrest

The US reiterated its concerns over Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest a day after India summoned a top American diplomat to object to remarks made by Washington about the legal trial of Delhi’s top politician and Narendra Modi rival.

Speaking at a press briefing on Wednesday, Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller said the Biden administration was monitoring the developments in New Delhi closely, including Mr Kejriwal’s court trial and freezing of opposition Congress party’s bank accounts.

India’s financial crime agency Enforcement Directorate (ED) arrested Mr Kejriwal, a key national opposition figure and chief minister of the capital territory, last week over charges of corruption in a now-scrapped liquor policy case.

The arrest came just weeks before the country is set to hold national elections in a key test for prime minister Modi’s iron grip on India.

“...we continue to follow these actions closely, including the arrest of Delhi chief minister Kejriwal. We are also aware of the Congress Party’s allegations that tax authorities have frozen some of their bank accounts in a manner that will make it challenging to effectively campaign in the upcoming elections, and we encourage fair, transparent, and timely legal processes for each of these issues,” Mr Miller said.

The US official was answering a question on summons issued to the senior US diplomat Gloria Berbena by India’s Ministry of External Affairs after Washington warned New Delhi to hold “fair, transparent and timely legal process” in Mr Kejriwal’s case.

Mr Miller said while he will not talk about any private diplomatic conversations, the State Department encourages “fair, transparent, timely legal processes”, reiterating an already public plea by the US that has irked New Delhi.

“We don’t think anyone should object to that, and we’ll make the same thing clear privately,” Mr Miller said.

Videos by Indian news agencies showed Ms Berbena being summoned at the Ministry of External Affairs for a meeting that lasted nearly 40 minutes.

Last week, the German Foreign Ministry said they expected Mr Kejriwal to get a fair and impartial trial, citing India’s democratic nature.

However, India’s External Affairs Ministry shot back, saying it was “blatant interference” in the country’s internal affairs.

A court in Delhi on Thursday extended Mr Kejriwal’s ED custody till 1 April.

Mr Kejriwal is among dozens of politicians facing crackdown by Mr Modi’s federal government before India votes for a new government, starting on 19 April. His Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party) has rejected the charges and called it a witch hunt to prevent the popular Delhi politician from fighting in the elections.

Mr Kejriwal’s party has declared that he will continue to serve as Delhi’s CM while they challenge the case in court.

Additionally, India’s once ruling party and now primary opposition Congress last week said its bank accounts were frozen in a tax dispute by India’s Income Tax department as part of Mr Modi’s agenda to “kill democracy”.

The move, Congress officials said, has a “crippling” effect on the party by leaving it without any money for expenses ahead of the critical elections against Mr Modi, where he is likely to come back for a third term.

Washington’s reminder to the Indian government to follow free and fair legal processes for political opponents comes at a time it sees Delhi as an important strategic and economic partner in its effort to push back against China’s growing clout worldwide.