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Indian diplomat indicted in N.Y. maid case leaves USA

12:25 AM, Jan 10, 2014   |    comments
Devyani Khobragade (Photo: Mohammed Jaffer, AP)
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(USA TODAY) -- An Indian envoy was indicted Thursday for allegedly lying to get her New York City housekeeper a work visa, and the State Department asked her to leave the country after granting India's request for broader diplomatic immunity.

Devyani Khobragade, 39, is charged with visa fraud and making false statements. She has been free on bail since her arrest last month.

A senior U.S. government official in Washington who wasn't authorized to speak about the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity says she departed Thursday night from John F. Kennedy International Airport headed for India, the Associated Press reported.

Although the State Department and the federal prosecutor initially announced that she had left the United States, her lawyer reported later that she was still in the country, the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office said. Her whereabouts were not disclosed before she was reported to have departed the country later in the evening.

Khobragade was a deputy counsel general at the Indian consulate in New York, where she arrived in September 2012. After her Dec. 12 arrest, she was transferred to India's mission at the United Nations. The State Department asked Khobragade to leave the United States on Thursday afternoon after granting India's request to accredit her to the United Nations, which affords greater immunity than she was entitled to as a consular officer.

But the charges will remain active until she can be brought back, either through a waiver of immunity or her voluntary return, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara wrote in a letter to District Judge Shira Scheindlin that accompanied the indictment.

Her lawyer, Daniel Arshack, told Fox News later that "as a result of her diplomatic status having been recognized, the federal court today recognized Dr. Khobragade's right to travel and she is pleased to be returning to her country. Her head is held high."

The arrest and police treatment of Khobragade has ignited a firestorm in India and strained relations between Washington and New Delhi. On Wednesday, in a diplomatic tit-for-tat, the Indian government ordered American officials to shut down the restaurant, bowling alley and all commercial activities at the U.S. Embassy in the capital.

Khobragade was arrested outside her daughter's Manhattan school and claimed she was subjected to cavity- and strip-searches. Bharara said at the time that she was never handcuffed and never subjected to a body-cavity search.

STORY: Prosecutor says strip-search of India diplomat 'standard'

STORY: Some in India urge calm in strip-search controversy

He said Khobragade was "fully searched by a female deputy marshal – in a private setting – when she was brought into the U.S. Marshals' custody, but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not."

Khobragade was freed on $250,000 bail. A preliminary hearing had been scheduled for next Tuesday.

Arshack, has argued his client should not face any charges and was protected by diplomatic immunity.

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid demanded that the charges be dropped, and he accused the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, of trying to blackmail Khobragade.

In a statement last month, Bharara, who was born in India, defended the arrest.

"It is alleged not merely that she sought to evade the law, but that she affirmatively created false documents and went ahead with lying to the U.S. government about what she was doing," Bharara said in a statement. "One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country. ... And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?"

Late Thursday, Richard issued a statement directed at other domestic workers "who are suffering as I did - you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you."

"When I decided to come to the United States, my hope was to work for a few years to support my family and then return to India," she said. "I never thought that things would get so bad here, that I would work so much that I did not have time to sleep or eat or have time to myself. Because of this treatment, I requested that I return to India but that request was denied."

The victim-assistance group Safe Horizon welcomed the indictment, saying it "demonstrates the seriousness with which the U.S. government treats labor exploitation."

"I hope that this case sends a clear message to diplomats and consular officials that the U.S. will not tolerate the exploitation of workers and marks the beginning of an increase in prosecution of these cases," Avaloy Lanning, senior director of the organization's anti-trafficking program, said in a statement.

Contributing: Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY


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