New York, Jan 10 (PTI): Senior Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was today indicted for visa fraud and making false statements by a grand jury which held that the charges against her will remain even as she headed back to India after being accorded full diplomatic immunity.
The charges against 39-year-old Khobragade will remain and she will have to face trial, if she returns to the US without diplomatic immunity, US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a letter to District Judge Shira Scheindlin.
Bharara said the grand jury has indicted the diplomat on two counts of visa fraud and making false statements in connection with the visa application of her domestic help Sangeeta Richard.
“There will not need to be an arraignment on the Indictment scheduled at this time. We understand that the defendant was very recently accorded diplomatic immunity status,” Bharara said in his letter.
“Therefore, the charges will remain pending until such time as she can be brought to Court to face the charges, either through a waiver of immunity or the defendant?s return to the United States in a non-immune status. The time between now and the time that she is able to be brought before the Court is excluded automatically under the Speedy Trial Act, pursuant to Title 18, United States Code, Section 3161(h)(3) (A), which provides for the exclusion of any period of delay resulting from the unavailability of the defendant,” he said.
“The charges against me are false and baseless. I look forward to proving them wrong,” Khobragade told PTI as she boarded the plane back to India.
She also affirmed her determination to ensure that this episode does not leave a lasting imprint on her family, in particular her children who are still in the US.
Khobragade was granted full diplomatic immunity on January 8 under the India-US Headquarters agreement.
On January 9, the US request for waiver of diplomatic immunity to Khobragade was refused by India.
A 1999-batch IFS officer, Khobragade, was arrested on December 12 on charges of making false declarations in a visa application for her maid. She was released on a USD 250,000 bond.
The diplomat was strip searched and held with criminals, triggering a row between the two sides with India retaliating by downgrading privileges of certain category of US diplomats.
Khobragade’s lawyer Daniel Arshack said since she has been accorded diplomatic immunity, she can travel outside the country and was returning to India.
“As a result of her diplomatic status having been recognised, the Federal court today recognised Khobragade?s right to travel and she is pleased to be returning to her country. Her head is held high. She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known,” Arshack told PTI.
He said Khobragade denies the “baseless” charges brought by the federal prosecutor Bharara’s office and “looks forward to providing the proof that over and over the investigators and prosecutors in this case have been sloppy and wrong.”
He said Khobragade did not make any false statements and she paid her domestic worker what she was entitled to be paid.
“Although the domestic (worker) came to work here on a short term contract which required her to return to India at the end of her employment as a result of the false claims and shoddy investigation, she and her family now enjoy permanent residency in the United States,” he said.
“The investigators in this case made serious errors as result of not fully investigating the facts. We look forward to providing the evidence of their blunders,” Arshack added.
The 21-page indictment said that Khobragade did not want to pay the “victim”, her domestic worker Richard, the required wages under US law or provide her with other protections against exploitative work conditions mandated by US law, which are “widely publicised to foreign diplomats and government officials.
The indictment said Khobragade filed a USD 4500 amount as monthly income in the visa application of Richard. It said the USD 4500 figure did not match “any actual income figure”.
“It was neither the agreed-upon monthly wages that Khobragade had agreed to pay the victim (about USD 573 per month) nor the victim’s monthly wage that Khobragade falsely represented to the US embassy through the fraudulent employment contract… Nor did the USD 4500 figure reflect Khobragade’s monthly income, which was considerably higher given her salary, cost of living stipend, and income from her real estate holdings in India.”
It said Khobragade entered into a “fake employment contract” with Richard and told her that it was a “mere formality” in order to get the visa and she “coached” Richard to lie to the US official in her visa interview at the US Embassy in New Delhi.
“Khobragade instructed the victim to lie and not say anything about actually being paid only Rs 30000 per month,” the indictment alleged.
The indictment further states that around February 2013, Richard told Khobragade “on several occasions” that she wanted to end the employment contract and return to India because she felt she was being “mistreated.”
It adds that after Richard fled Khobragade’s residence, the diplomat and “others took steps to prevent the victim and her family from communicating with lawyers” about the experience she had working for Khobragade.
“Between June and August 2013, Khobragade and relative 1 called the victim’s husband in Delhi multiple times to pressure him to locate and disclose the victim’s location.
From July through November 2013, Khobragade took steps to intimidate the victim and the victim’s family and to prevent them from initiating any proceedings against Khobragade.
“These steps included taking legal action and causing the victim’s family to be contacted by law enforcement relative 1 and others in India,” the indictment said.
“The Government respectfully writes to advise the Court that earlier today, the grand jury voted on and returned the enclosed indictment charging Devyani Khobragade, the defendant, in two counts with visa fraud and making false statements in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1546, 1001, and 2,” Bharara said.
“In this case, the defendant is unavailable because her ‘whereabouts are known but (her) presence for trial cannot be obtained by due diligence or (she) resists appearing at or being returned for trial’,” he said.
Bharara made it clear that Khobragade will be prosecuted if she returns to the US without diplomatic immunity.
“We will alert the Court promptly if we learn that the defendant returns to the US in a non-immune capacity, at which time the Government will proceed to prosecute this case and prove the charges in the Indictment,” he added.
After the row broke out, Khobragade was transferred to India’s Permanent Mission to the UN. Following her arrest, her passport was kept in court’s custody.
Once the UN accreditation was granted that gave her the full diplomatic immunity, the US immediately requested India to waive this immunity so that she can be tried in a US court.
“The US requested waiver of immunity (of Khobragade).
India denied that request,” a US government official told PTI.
“We then requested her departure, as per the standard procedure and the charges remain in place,” the official added.