An Indian diplomat whose arrest sent U.S.-India relations into a tailspin was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on Thursday on charges of visa fraud and making false statements regarding the employment of a domestic worker.
The indictment came just hours after the State Department moved to resolve the case in a way that allowed Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, to leave the country without facing the allegations in court.
A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive matter, said that the State Department has officially asked India to arrange her departure. Khobragade’s attorney, Daniel N. Arshack, said earlier Thursday that she remained in her New York residence “with her children,” but the Associated Press reported just before midnight that she had left the country.
Under the diplomatic resolution, the State Department late Wednesday granted an Indian request to accredit Khobragade to New Delhi’s United Nations mission in New York, a position that has a higher level of diplomatic immunity than her previous consular job.
The U.S. official said refusal to grant the accreditation request “would be almost without precedent . . . except in the event of national security risks, including espionage.”
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
The immunity is not retroactive, and the charges against her are “pending until such time as she can be brought to court to face them” in a non-immune status, said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan.
That would seem to limit any future plans Khobragade may have to visit or reside in this country. “Her husband and children are U.S. citizens, so she wants to be here, one would assume,” the U.S. official said.
India’s foreign ministry said in a statement Friday that “at the time of her departure for India, Counsellor Khobragade reiterated her innocence on charges filed against her,” and added that she was determined to ensure that “the episode would not leave a lasting impact on her family, in particular, her children, who are still in the United States.”
Earlier Thursday, Khobragade said in a statement to the Times of India: “I will show my immunity to the court. The court will see that I have diplomatic immunity. Only then will I leave the U.S.”
The indictment charges Khobragade, 39, with two counts of visa fraud and false statements, alleging that she tried to circumvent U.S. wage requirements by submitting to visa authorities a falsified contract for the employee whom she brought from India.
Once the employee, Sangeeta Richard, ran away, the indictment alleges, Khobragade arranged for relatives in India to contact the worker’s family there in an attempt “to silence and intimidate the victim and her family and lie to Indian authorities and courts.”
In a statement released Thursday by Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organization in New York that represents her, Richard welcomed the indictment and said: “I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did — you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you.”
On Wednesday, a federal judge denied Khobragade’s request to extend the Jan. 13 deadline before which prosecutors had to indict her. Khobragade had hoped that negotiations between the State Department and the Indian government would result in the charges, first lodged Dec. 12, being dropped. Bharara had opposed the extension, leading Khobragade’s attorney to allege that he was acting in bad faith.
Since Khobragade’s arrest, and a strip-search and brief incarceration that inflamed Indian public opinion, India has demanded that the charges be dropped. It was not clear how New Delhi responded to the resolution.
To show its displeasure, the Indian government has taken measures ranging from seemingly small to serious. It removed security barricades outside the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. Last week, it asked the embassy not to screen movies at the American Center without obtaining domestic licenses. Indian officials have alleged that some spouses of diplomats teach at the embassy school illegally, and the embassy has been asked to provide details about teachers and their salaries.
The Indian government has also told the New Delhi police to waive immunity for traffic violations involving embassy vehicles — a common diplomatic courtesy.
Although the Indian government had pressed the Obama administration to resolve the issue, the State Department had repeatedly indicated that its hands were tied and it could not intervene in a law enforcement matter.
Informed Wednesday of the imminent indictment, the State Department issued accreditation for her new job — which India had requested on Dec. 20. U.S. officials then asked India to waive immunity for her, something the U.S. official described as standard procedure. India declined.
The United States then requested her departure.
On Thursday, fast-moving events led to some confusion. When the indictment was posted on the U.S. attorney’s Web site, Bharara also issued a statement to the court saying that “we understand that the defendant was very recently accorded diplomatic immunity status and that she departed the United States today.”
That prompted a statement by Khobragade’s attorney saying that she remained in this country.
The lawyer issued another statement later saying that “we are pleased” that the State Department “did the right thing today by recognizing the diplomatic status to which Dr. Khobragade has always been entitled.”
Khobragade, Arshack said, “denies the baseless charges” and “we look forward to providing the evidence of [prosecution] blunders.”
“She is pleased to be returning to her country,” he said. “Her head is held high.”
Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.