To outrage in India and Nepal, a senior Saudi diplomat accused of holding captive and repeatedly raping two Nepali maids at his luxury apartment has left Delhi under the protection of diplomatic immunity.
The deepening diplomatic incident threw the spotlight on the trafficking and abuse of domestic workers from impoverished Nepali communities.
The maids were removed in a police raid after another woman employed by the diplomat made a complaint to an Indian charity that campaigns on behalf of trafficked Nepalis.
In shocking testimony, the women alleged that they were often gang-raped by up to eight male visitors at a time in the spacious apartment where the diplomat lived with his wife and family. Medical tests have reportedly confirmed that they were victims of sexual assault.
Indian women’s groups staged angry protests outside the Saudi embassy on Thursday demanding that the Gulf kingdom hand over the diplomat, a first secretary.
The Saudi ambassador was called in to the Indian foreign ministry as Indian police asked to speak to the diplomat and his wife, who lived with him in the apartment.
But the Saudi embassy denied the claims, saying it "strongly stresses that these allegations are false and have not been proven". It also lodged a protest about the raid on the apartment, which it said was a breach of diplomatic privilege.
The Indian foreign ministry took the unusual step of naming the diplomat as Majed Hassan Ashoor in a statement announcing that he had left the country under the Vienna Convention. The treaty grants diplomats immunity from arrest and prosecution when they are serving overseas.
The women, aged 30 and 50, who have now returned to Nepal, said they were sexually and physically abused and denied water and food while being captive for several months.
They came from remote rural parts of Nepal and were recruited as domestic servants by human traffickers. They were first sent to Saudi Arabia to work for the diplomat’s family before he brought them to Delhi when he was assigned there.
While the investigation in New Delhi was blocked by diplomatic protocol, police in Kathmandu said they had made arrests as they investigated networks that send thousands of women abroad from Nepal to work as domestic servants in India and Gulf states.
After her rescue, one of the unnamed women claimed that they had been held at the apartment for about four months.
"They raped us, kept us locked up, did not give us anything to eat ... When we tried to run away, we were beaten up," she said, her face covered with a scarf to protect her identity.
A senior Indian police officer said that a case of "rape, sodomy and illegal confinement" has been registered against the Saudi official.
The allegations and investigation created a major diplomatic headache for India. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has made improving relations with Nepal a priority amid concerns about growing Chinese influence in South Asia.
But he will soon make a rare visit for an Indian leader to Saudi Arabia, which is a major supplier of oil to India and where an estimated two million Indians work.