Indian diplomat re-indicted in U.S. visa fraud case that spurred international tension

Published: March 14, 2014

Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade arrives at the domestic airport in Mumbai in this January 14, 2014 file photo. PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

JENNIFER PELTZ
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — An Indian diplomat was re-indicted Friday on U.S. visa fraud charges that touched off an international stir after she was arrested and strip-searched last year.

The new indictment, filed Friday, essentially just reinstates recently dismissed charges against the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade — charges that now arrive with her out of the United States.

A judge threw out last year’s virtually identical indictment Wednesday on diplomatic immunity grounds, but the ruling left a door open to reviving the case and federal prosecutors quickly suggested they would. It accuses Khobragade of lying to the U.S. government to get her housekeeper a work visa.

Khobragade’s lawyer, Daniel Arshack, had no immediate comment Friday. He said Wednesday that re-indicting his client “might be viewed an aggressive act and one that (prosecutors) would be ill-advised to pursue.”

Khobragade is back in India. There was no immediate response to messages left at India’s embassy in Washington and consulate in New York.

The arrest roiled U.S.-Indian relations, with India taking such steps as removing concrete traffic barriers around the U.S. Embassy and revoking diplomats’ ID cards. After being indicted, Khobragade complied with a Department of State request to leave the U.S., and the Indian government then asked Washington to withdraw a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. The U.S. complied.

It’s unclear when, if ever, she might appear in court in New York again. It’s unlikely she would ever be forced to appear through extradition.

The U.S. State Department had filed court papers opposing Khobragade’s bid to get the charges dismissed and stands by it, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Friday in Washington.

Khobragade was a deputy consul general in New York when she was arrested in December near her children’s Manhattan school. Prosecutors say she told the government she was paying her Indian housekeeper $4,500 per month while actually paying her less than $3 per hour and often making her work up to 100 hours a week.

“Khobragade did not want to pay the victim the required wages under law or provide the victim with other protections against exploitative work conditions mandated by U.S. law,” the indictment says.

In the initial case, she pleaded not guilty and argued she was immune from prosecution.

The arrest sparked an outcry in India, particularly because of the strip-search. The U.S. Marshals said Khobragade was treated no differently than others who are arrested, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said she indeed was afforded courtesies most Americans wouldn’t get, such as being allowed to make phone calls for two hours to arrange child care and sort out personal matters.

Bharara, who is himself Indian-born, also said Khobragade wasn’t handcuffed, restrained or arrested in front of her children and was given coffee and offered food while detained. And he questioned why there was such a furor over what Khobragade experienced but “precious little outrage” over how the housekeeper was allegedly treated.

Still, many in India saw the arrest as deeply disrespectful. Indian officials also said the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, had tried to blackmail the diplomat; Richard’s advocates disputed that.

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Safe Horizon, an anti-human-trafficking group that represents Richard, said earlier this week it hoped Khobragade would face a new indictment, calling the case “a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate our nation’s commitment to fighting exploitation of workers.”

When Khobragade was arrested, U.S. officials said her status as a consular officer provided immunity limited to acts performed in the exercise of official functions. She disagreed.

Then, on the day before her Jan. 9 indictment, she was accredited to India’s U.N. mission, a role that conferred wider immunity.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin decided in a ruling Wednesday that the later appointment gave Khobragade immunity when indicted and meant that indictment had to be dismissed, without settling the question of whether the alleged crimes would have been considered “official acts” covered by the earlier, more limited immunity.

But the judge wrote that there was “no bar to a new indictment against Khobragade,” whose immunity ended when she left the country. She still works in foreign affairs for the Indian government, but now in New Delhi, according to Arshack.

——

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Matthew Pennington contributed to this report from Washington.

16:43ET 14-03-14

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