NEW DELHI — At a time when the United States and India are trying to move beyond a rift over an Indian diplomat’s arrest in a domestic worker case, news that charges against her had been dismissed — for now — was greeted with a mix of skepticism and relief Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York dismissed charges Wednesday against Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul general arrested in December and charged with lying to investigators on the visa application for her domestic employee.
The judge ruled that Khobragade had diplomatic immunity at the time of the Jan. 9 indictment, which may no longer apply now that she has returned to India. Prosecutors said they might seek a new indictment, although they did not provide a specific timeline.
“The judge ruled there’s no bar to a new indictment, and we intend to proceed accordingly,” said James M. Margolin, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
Khobragade’s arrest, strip-search and indictment caused a firestorm in India and was widely viewed here as unnecessarily harsh treatment by U.S. law enforcement. The Indian government went to great lengths to show its displeasure, taking a series of retaliatory steps against the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi — removing security barricades, launching an investigation into the visa status of employees at the American Embassy School and limiting the embassy’s distribution of imported alcohol.
Before the indictment, attorneys on both sides filed dueling court petitions. Read the filings:
• Offer to waive indictment deadline
• Response from U.S. attorney
• Response from Khobragade's attorney expressing surprise and distress
On Thursday, Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, said he hoped that the judge’s ruling would bring the controversy to a close.
But later in the day, the ministry issued a terse statement noting that the “judgement does not consider the merits of the case.”
Khobragade, 39, had previously held diplomatic posts in Germany, Italy and Pakistan and began working at the Indian Consulate in New York in October 2012.
She was arrested outside her daughter’s school in December and charged with visa fraud and making false statements about the work agreement with her Indian maid, Sangeeta Richard. Khobragade and her husband had brought Richard to the United States from India to work as a maid and nanny.
In the January indictment, prosecutors alleged that Khobragade had paid Richard only $573 a month — a “legally insufficient” wage — and made her work more than 100 hours a week. The maid eventually left Khobragade’s home and sought protection from an activist organization that helps victims of human trafficking. Khobragade’s family has maintained throughout that the maid was well treated.
Shortly before the indictment, India transferred Khobragade to a position at the United Nations, which gave her full immunity from prosecution.
Scheindlin ruled that regardless of whether Khobragade had immunity when she was arrested, her U.N. status at the time of the indictment mandated that the charges be dismissed.
“Even if Khobragade had no immunity at the time of her arrest and has none now, her acquisition of immunity during the pendency of proceedings mandates dismissal,” the judge wrote.
Khobragade’s father, Uttam, a retired bureaucrat in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, said the family was relieved that the charges had been dismissed.
“We’re happy that the court has at last given justice,” he said.
After Devyani Khobragade was expelled from the United States in January, she was given a hero’s welcome in India, where she was greeted at the airport by a crowd of well-wishers bearing flowers. She has been living in government quarters and has taken up a new job at the Ministry of External Affairs, as a director in the office that oversees Indian foreign assistance. Her family, which had remained in New York, is expected to return to India this weekend, her father said. The diplomat’s husband, American academic and wine expert Aakash Singh Rathore, has been offered a position at a New Delhi university.
It is unclear what would happen if the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara — a native of India who has been criticized in his homeland for his handling of the case — decided to re-indict the diplomat.
“Any re-indictment would only be for show since the government well knows this case is never going to be tried,” said Khobragade’s attorney, Daniel N. Arshack.
But beyond the shadow of fresh criminal charges, the family still may face some snags. Indian newspapers are reporting that Khobragade is being investigated here by Indian authorities because her children allegedly have both Indian and U.S. passports, which is illegal.
Advocates for domestic workers in India say the ongoing attention on Khobragade obscures the larger issue at hand, which is that domestic workers in India are often underpaid and work long hours without vacation or health insurance.
Anannya Bhattacharjee, director of the domestic workers’ group Gharelu Kaamgar Sanghatana, said she was “dismayed” by the judge’s decision.
“It is a shame that she is being given refuge from the law,” Bhattacharjee said. She urged the legal community to pay attention to the rights of Khobragade’s maid.