New indictment filed against Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in U.S. visa-fraud case

March 14

An Indian diplomat was reindicted 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 reinstates the charges against the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, who has left the country. A judge dismissed last year’s virtually identical indictment Wednesday on diplomatic immunity grounds, but the ruling left the door open to federal prosecutors to revive the case, and they suggested that they would.

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

Khobragade is back in India, and it is unclear when, if ever, she might appear in court in New York again. There was no immediate response to messages left at the Indian Embassy in Washington and the Indian Consulate in New York.

The State Department had filed court papers opposing Khobragade’s bid to get the charges dismissed and stands by that action, 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 school in Manhattan. Prosecutors said she lied to the government to get her Indian housekeeper a work visa, claiming she was paying the maid $500 a month while actually paying her less than $3 an hour. She pleaded not guilty while also arguing that she was immune from prosecution.

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

Bharara, who was born in India, also said Khobragade was not handcuffed, restrained or arrested in front of her children, and she was given coffee and offered food while detained.

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

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

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 she was indicted, Khobragade complied with a State Department request that she leave the country, and the Indian government then asked Washington to withdraw a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. The United States complied.

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 indictment Jan. 9, 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 and meant that the 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.

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