What began last week as an apparently minor New York arrest on visa fraud charges has become a major diplomatic row between the United States and India, and law enforcement officials and the State Department have clashed over whether U.S. legal or diplomatic concerns should prevail.
At the end of another day of testy U.S.-India exchanges, spokeswoman Marie Harf reiterated the State Department’s “regret” over the way the arrest of an Indian diplomat was handled and said that “what we’re focused on right now is working to move the relationship forward.”
Forward movement seemed unlikely, however, as India on Thursday urged the United States to drop the charges against Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, and insisted that she was the victim, not the perpetrator, in the case.
She was arrested last week and charged with underpaying an Indian household worker and lying about her wages to obtain a U.S. visa for the woman. The story has dominated Indian news media and led to anti-U.S. demonstrations Thursday in the cities of Kolkata and Hyderabad, where an effigy of President Obama was burned.
India took particular exception to a blistering statement issued Wednesday night by the Indian-born federal prosecutor in Manhattan, who vowed to “uphold the rule of law, protect victims and hold accountable” even the “powerful, rich or connected.”
The statement by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara appeared to have taken much of the Obama administration, including his own Justice Department bosses, by surprise.
“We didn’t know it was coming,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
It appeared that no one in the administration wanted to seem cavalier about the mistreatment of foreign workers or to override law enforcement. But there was a widespread feeling among officials that, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a conversation Wednesday with India’s national security adviser, “certain courtesies were not extended” in the case.
“The fact here is that we are respectful of the law enforcement process,” the senior official said. “We also have to be respectful of the fact that how these things are handled can have enormous repercussions, especially in a country with sensitivities like India.”
Relevant officials in the administration have known for months that an investigation was underway, but “nobody knew this was going to happen,” another U.S. official said. Referring to Khobragade’s arrest, made after she dropped her children off at school, and her booking, strip-search and incarceration in New York, the official said, “That’s not the way these things are done.”
“If they wanted to throw the book at her,” the second official said, the United States could have protested to the Indian Embassy in Washington and “made her leave the country. That’s the way these things are done,” particularly in cases in which no physical abuse is alleged.
Others, in addition to Bharara, had a different view. “When someone is arrested for a violation of federal law, they do not get processed for a tea and crumpets ceremony,” Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, told the Wall Street Journal.
Spokeswoman Ellen Canale said Thursday that the Justice Department had no comment on the matter.
Many holes remain in the chronology of events leading up to the arrest, and numerous facts — including the level of diplomatic immunity afforded by Khobragade’s consular status — are in dispute among India, the United States and the parties involved.
According to the Indian government and an attorney for Khobragade, who has been released from custody on unsecured bail bond, she contacted the State Department on June 24 to say that her Indian babysitter and housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, had disappeared. New York police initially declined to accept a missing-
person report, saying that Richard was an adult and that only a family member could file such a report.
In July, Khobragade’s attorney said, Richard tried to blackmail the diplomat, demanding money and assistance in obtaining a long-term U.S. visa. At Khobragade’s request, the Indian government brought charges against Richard and her husband for breach of contract and illegally obtaining a passport with the intention of immigrating to the United States.
The Indian Embassy said Richard had “taken cash, mobile phone and documents from the residence of Dr. Khobragade.”
On Dec. 6, New Delhi judicial authorities forwarded an arrest warrant for Richard to the State Department, the embassy said, and asked for assistance in finding her. “No response was received from the U.S. side for any of these communications,” the embassy said.
On Dec. 12, Khobragade was arrested by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service. According to the complaint against her in the Southern District of New York, she brought Richard to the United States last year after signing a contract agreeing to pay her $9.75 an hour for a 40-hour workweek, and including sick and vacation days as required by U.S. law, but had secretly forced Richard to sign a separate contract under which she was paid only about $3.31 an hour.
“Khobragade,” the complaint said, “caused to be submitted to the U.S. Department of State an employment contract that [she] knew to contain materially false and fraudulent statements.”
In a statement Thursday, Khobragade’s attorney, Daniel N. Arshack, said without elaboration that “the factual allegations against her are false and baseless” and that she “is protected from prosecution by virtue of her diplomatic status.”
Harf, in a State Department briefing, disputed much of the Indian version of events.
Although she agreed that the case “goes back many months,” she said it was “highly inaccurate to say we ignored any Government of India communiques on this issue. Period.
“I think it is accurate to say that our law enforcement authorities and the government of India have had some different interpretations of the issues and allegations at play throughout this entire scenario.”
Harf also confirmed that Richard’s husband and children were now in the United States, after being issued visas by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. She declined to provide specifics but said, “We are aware of the existence of allegations that the family was intimidated in India.”
Dana Sussman, a staff attorney at Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organization in New York, is representing Richard. She said the housekeeper worked from early morning until late at night, seven days a week, for several months without a single paid day off.
“The conditions were so terrible that she asked to go back home to India, but the request was denied,” Sussman said. “Her only real choice was to leave.”
Around June 22, Richard left, and some members of the Indian community in New York connected her to Safe Horizon, said Sussman, who denied the blackmail allegations and said her client took nothing but her belongings when she fled. Sussman said her organization contacted the State Department.
“This case is not about how Dr. Khobragade was arrested,” she said. “These laws are designed to protect against the exploitation and abuse of domestic workers. That’s the story here.”
Annie Gowen, in New Delhi, and Julie Tate contributed to this report.