Wed, Dec 22, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Cellphone video causes diplomatic spat

MORALITY The sex act an Indian teenager filmed with his cellphone camera led to the arrest of a businessman and friction between the Indian and US governments

THE GUARDIAN , New Delhi

To the Indian schoolboy, it must have seemed like an ingenious if indelicate use of new technology.

But when the 17-year-old used his mobile phone camera to record his girlfriend giving him oral sex, he could have had little idea of the far-reaching global consequences.

By yesterday, his ungentlemanly act had provoked a scandal that was dominating every Indian newspaper, the chief executive of a major company had been jailed, and a major diplomatic row was brewing between India and America, with Condoleezza Rice to the fore.

The boy himself has been tracked down by police, faced court yesterday and has been expelled from his school.

The trouble started a few days after the teenager made the recording, when someone tried to sell a video clip of him and his 16-year-old girlfriend on the Indian online auction Web site Bazee.com. The firm is a subsidiary of the US auction giant eBay. Indian officials were not amused. On Friday detectives arrested Bazee.com's chief executive, Avnish Bajaj, a US citizen and Harvard graduate. On Saturday a court bundled him off to jail for a week.

Yesterday the police arrested the 17-year-old boy as well.

Both he and his girlfriend were students at the elite Delhi Public School, one of India's most prestigious institutions.

He appeared in a packed juvenile court yesterday -- with his face covered -- and has been put in the care of a Juvenile Welfare Officer until he appears again tomorrow.

The case has gripped India, a largely conservative country where anything more revealing than a wet sari is generally regarded as culturally unacceptable.

More surprisingly, though, the scandal also appears to have provoked the interest of one of the world's most powerful women.

Condoleezza Rice is understood to have telephoned the US ambassador in India, David Mulford, about the case. The Bush administration's national security adviser and future secretary of state has let it be known she is furious at Bajaj's humiliating treatment. He is, after all, a US citizen.

"The US embassy is following this case very closely. There is high-level interest in Washington regarding the case," an embassy statement issued over the weekend said.

Bajaj is currently locked up in Delhi's Tihar Jail, India's most infamous prison. He is sleeping on a floor with 70 other untried defendants.

Last night Bazee.com said it was outraged by Bajaj's arrest, not least because he had volunteered to fly to Delhi from Mumbai to help the police inquiry.

The firm said it had taken the video off its site as soon as it became aware of it. Ebay Inc has also condemned the arrest as "outrageous," while India's powerful software industry lobby group has called for Bajaj's immediate release.

"In such a situation, the arrest and detention of Bajaj is uncalled for and not expected in a mature democracy like ours," the National Association of Software and Service Companies said.

The case has even been debated in India's Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament.

The right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- which ruled India until last year and takes a tough line on immorality, especially when it comes from abroad -- has condemned the US "interference." America should not meddle in India's internal affairs, BJP MP Lakshman Singh said.

Yesterday Delhi police officials defended their action.

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