The Untouchables: Diplomats in America
updated 01/17/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/17/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
Ejected for unruliness one night last November from the Godfather, a Washington, D.C. strip joint, a young, curly-haired regular returned within minutes, flashing two pistols and warning, "I'm from the Mafia, and I'm going to kill you." Part-time bouncer Kenneth Skeen, 23, of Hyattsville, Md. and another employee chased the man into the street and cornered him as he crouched behind some bushes. Suddenly the youth pumped three bullets into Skeen, wounding him in the head, leg and abdomen. The man was identified as Antonio F. Azeredo da Silveira Jr., 18, the adopted son of Brazil's Ambassador to the U.S. Known to police from previous encounters, Azeredo da Silveira claimed diplomatic immunity and within days was bound for Rio.
North Korean Third Secretary O Nam Choi is having trouble postponing his date with authorities. North Korea is an observer mission to the United Nations, and while O's claim to diplomatic immunity is being debated by officials from the State Department, the U.N. and North Korea, he is holed up in his nation's penthouse mission. If he leaves the apartment before the dispute is settled, he will be arrested on charges of sexually abusing a Bronx woman in a suburban New York City park last September. The emissary, who professes innocence, has offered to leave the U.S., but Westchester County District Attorney Carl Vergari has refused to negotiate. "The only way he gets out is via our courts," says Vergari.
These are the cases in which justice is not blind, in which the quintessential American right to redress of grievances is sacrificed to the orderly conduct of foreign affairs. Some 15,000 diplomats and their families residing in the United States, like those everywhere else in the world, live outside the laws of their host country, exempt from nearly all civil and criminal penalties. In theory, the arrangement protects them from being scapegoated for the policies they are charged to advocate. In practice, however, diplomatic immunity has been occasionally abused. Diplomats may, and commonly do, ignore dunning notices and parking tickets. (In 1980 New York City lost $1.82 million in parking fines, with the Soviets and Cubans as the worst offenders.) More seriously, they have been involved in crimes ranging from smuggling drugs in diplomatic pouches (which may not be opened by U.S. Customs) to rape.
Each year the State Department records a dozen or so cases in which diplomats claim immunity from felony prosecution. Such serious violators are usually called home by their governments or declared persona non grata by the State Department and expelled; rarely do foreign countries waive immunity and allow their diplomats to stand trial here.
Of course, the protection does work both ways. Americans have invoked immunity overseas—as in a case in 1977, when a U.S. diplomat killed an Australian government worker in a Canberra traffic accident and was sent home without trial. The State Department refuses to say how often American diplomats have claimed immunity, but as Associate Chief of Protocol Richard Gookin observes: "Without that protection, we couldn't even staff our posts overseas."
As a series of recent cases shows, Americans are beginning to take legal steps to protect themselves against diplomats. Carol Holmes and another rape victim of Aryee, known only as Jane Doe in court papers, won close to $1.8 million in a civil suit against the young Ghanaian last year. Their victory, which is almost unheard-of, resulted from a tactical error on Aryee's side: He failed to send a lawyer to court to establish his immunity. But so far it has been a somewhat empty triumph. Aryee, a suspect in other sex crimes as well, has long since returned to Ghana. Officials there promised to prosecute him, but nobody—Holmes, her lawyers or the State Department—knows where he is. "All we can do is throw him out," explains Frank Provyn, a State Department spokesman. "Otherwise we would be involved in the internal system of another country."
Kenneth Skeen, who still has a bullet lodged in his back, has piled up $10,000 in medical bills while living on his $100-a-week workmen's compensation check. He is suing Azeredo da Silveira, his ambassador father and the government of Brazil for $10 million. But the victim's prospects for success are bleak. Unlike Holmes, he must convince a Washington judge that he has the right to take a diplomat to court. In nearby Alexandria, Va. last year, a judge threw out a suit by a woman who was partially paralyzed in a car accident involving a Chilean diplomat's son. Like most case law on the subject, that ruling held that diplomats cannot be sued.
Despite the reluctance of federal officials to take action against diplomats, local leaders around the country have been eager to take them on. Paramus, N.J. Police Chief Joseph J. Delaney, 47, drew national attention last month when he told Soviet diplomat Nikita Matkovsky to "go pound salt." Matkovsky had demanded an apology from Delaney after Yelena Tarasova, wife of another Soviet diplomat, was detained for 15 minutes by police for allegedly shoplifting a $4.25 pair of children's tights from a Paramus discount store. "I'm sure he thought he was coming here to talk to some Po-dunk police chief and because he represented the Soviet Union I would do a back flip," says Delaney, a veteran undercover cop and former head of a local organized crime strike force. "No way was I going to apologize." Since the incident Delaney has received 250 fan letters, hundreds of congratulatory calls, telegrams and citations, a ceramic eagle—and 13 pounds of salt.
Long-standing property tax exemptions have also triggered grumbling among budget-drained municipalities. Last summer the Glen Cove, N.Y. City Council banned weekending Soviets from city beaches and recreational facilities unless stiff fees were paid. (The Soviets swiftly countered by banning American diplomats from a favorite river resort outside Moscow.) "We don't like them expostulating the virtues of communism while living in the lap of capitalist luxury," says Glen Cove Mayor Alan M. Parente. Residents of San Francisco's affluent Cow Hollow section are miffed because a mysterious new 100-square-foot, battleship-gray structure atop the Soviet Consulate is blocking million-dollar views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Likewise, in Englewood, N.J., the city council is trying to block the $1 million sale of a 25-room mansion to the Libyan government, claiming that the city will lose $12,000 in property taxes and risk violent protests should the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, ever visit. Although the State Department officially disapproves of such tactics, it has no power to stop localities from such actions.
Until four years ago, when Congress tightened diplomatic immunity for the first time since 1790, blanket immunity applied to every foreign diplomat, from the ambassador to the embassy gardener. Now lower-ranking employees receive protection only while on the job. Despite the occasional bursts of indignation that sweep through Congress in the wake of some spectacularly outrageous abuse of the privilege, there is little prospect of more drastic reform. That leaves the diplomats' victims feeling understandably enraged and frustrated. Kenneth Skeen says he has lost faith in his government. "Just because I'm not the son of somebody, I can't get any protection," he complains. Carol Holmes has joined a support group for rape and incest victims, but daily reminders of the attack linger. "I'm 41 years old, and I can't sleep with the lights out," she says. Though she struggles to come to terms with the rape, she can't mask her anger over Aryee's release and the "non-acknowledgment" of the crime. "I often think," she says quietly, "that if somebody somewhere had taken my hand and said, 'We're sorry,' it would have made a big difference to me."