Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade is indicted again

NEW YORK (TIP): Barely two days after the dismissal of her indictment, the Indian diplomat whose arrest led to a long drawn diplomatic row between India and the US has again been indicted by the federal government and faces arrest if she returns to the United States, federal prosecutors said Friday, March 14.

Devyani Khobragade faces one count of visa fraud and one count of making false statements for allegedly lying on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, according to the indictment filed in a Manhattan federal court Friday, March 14. An arrest warrant also was issued, said Jerika Richardson, spokeswoman for the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. The fresh indictment comes just 2 days after the original indictment against Khobragade was dismissed by a federal judge who agreed with her lawyers’ assertion that she was protected under diplomatic immunity at the time of the first indictment.

The judgment handed out by USDJ Shira A. Scheindlin on March 12 said, “Khobragade’s motion to dismiss the Indictment on the ground of diplomatic immunity is granted. Khobragade’s conditions of bail are terminated, and her bond is exonerated. It is ordered that any open arrest warrants based on this Indictment must be vacated.” The judge’s dismissal of the indictment was widely applauded by the Indian American community who have been worried over the worsening relations between India and the US over the diplomat’s case. Khobragade’s attorney, Daniel Arshack had apprehended a fresh indictment even as he commented that the former deputy general consul, now back in India, was pleased by the ruling.

“She is heartened that the rule of law prevailed,” he said, adding that a new indictment “might be viewed an aggressive act and one that (prosecutors) would be ill-advised to pursue.” The indication of the fresh indictment had come on the day Judge Shira A. Scheindlin handed down the judgment dismissing the indictment. James Margolin, a spokesman for Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara had said in a statement post verdict, March 12,”The District Court found that Devyani Khobragade had immunity during a limited period of time between January 8 and January 9, when the indictment was returned by a grand jury. As the court indicated in its decision and as Devyani Khobragade has conceded, there is currently no bar to a new indictment against her for her alleged criminal conduct, and we intend to proceed accordingly.”

So, in a quick move, on March 14, the office of Preet Bharara, the District Attorney of the NY Southern District handling Devyani Khobragade case, re-indicted Khobragade. Her attorney, Daniel Arshack, declined comment Friday. “The government of India will respond in due course,” he said in a statement. Meanwhile, government of India has expressed dismay and shock at the re-indictment of the diplomat. A statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said, “We reiterate that the case has no merit. Therefore this second indictment has no impact on our stated position. Now that Dr Khobragade has returned to India, the court in the US has no jurisdiction in India over her. Government will, therefore, no longer engage on this case in the US’ legal system.” The vital question is : can Dr. Khobragade ignore the criminal case against her in a US court? The MEA Spokesperson further said: “This was an unnecessary step. Any measures consequent to this decision in the US, will unfortunately impact upon efforts on both sides to build the India-US strategic partnership, to which both sides are committed.”

The question arises whether individual legal issues are so important as to relegate in to the background “the strategic partnership” between two countries. India Americans, worried about the relations between India and the US, have voiced their opinion on the issue. Here is what an eminent attorney Ravi Batra has to say, ” I am disturbed by what I have seen occur from December 12th to March 12th, when Judge Scheindlin issued her surprising and unexpected technical-dismissal of the January 9th Indictment. There has been much noise from all quarters since December 12th, who sought to vilify the United States and our above-politics United States Attorney Preet Bharara. Some, perhaps, to derail the bilateral relationship. Others, perhaps, questioning how could a friendly nation treat another so. Yet others, were playing for personal advantage – much as an undertaker does upon every death. But the most painful cut, made repeatedly, was the legally false or factually false-laced comment coming from a source whose job was to defend Devyani, within the bounds of law. While lawyers, like doctors, can misdiagnose, they ought not misrepresent facts.

Certainly, to do both, and repeatedly, when you have over 1 billion good and decent people worried about national respect and national honor is beyond comprehension as it is a core wrong.” Khobragade was arrested in December, with prosecutors saying she claimed she paid her Indian maid $4,500 per month to get the woman a visa but actually paid her less than the US minimum wage. Prosecutors said the maid received less than $3 per hour for her work. The arrest outside Khobragade’s daughter’s Manhattan school created outrage in India, particularly because of the strip-search. The US Marshals said Khobragade was treated no differently than others who are arrested. Bharara said Khobragade was arrested discreetly, given coffee and offered food while detained and afforded courtesies most Americans wouldn’t 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 but moved with his family to the US, also said Khobragade wasn’t handcuffed, restrained or arrested in front of her children. Still, many in India saw the arrest as unnecessarily humiliating. Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon called the treatment “despicable and barbaric.”

Khobragade had pleaded not guilty. Indian officials said the housekeeper had tried to blackmail the diplomat, which the housekeeper’s advocates disputed. The episode chilled US-Indian relations, and India took such steps as removing concrete traffic barriers around the US Embassy and revoking diplomats’ ID cards. US Secretary of State John Kerry called a top Indian official to express his regret over what happened. After being indicted, Khobragade complied with a Department of State request to leave the US. The Indian government then asked Washington to withdraw a diplomat from the US Embassy in New Delhi. The US complied. Of late, a section of the Indian American community has been critical of Preet Bharara who they perceive as targeting Indians, whatever the reason and the motive. It appears the ace attorney realized it was time to clarify his position.

He, therefore, had a statement put out on the issue. Refuting the perception that Preet Bharara is targeting Indians, James M. Margolin, Chief Public Information Officer, United States Attorney’s Office, SDNY, said, March 12 late afternoon: “Regarding the perception that Preet Bharara is “targeting Indians,” I would note that the US Attorney’s Office does not “target” any group of individual. The Office prosecutes people for whom there is evidence of criminal conduct. A very small percentage of defendants in cases brought by this office happens to be Indian or of Indian descent, but their ethnicity or national origin has nothing to do with why they are prosecuted. Nor does ethnicity, national origin, religion or any other demographic characteristic have any bearing on the prosecution of any of the hundreds of other defendants prosecuted by this Office every year. And the U.S. Attorney himself does not suggest charges or decide to bring them; cases are investigated and brought by law enforcement agents working with the prosecuting attorneys in our Office.” What next?

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