India retaliates as US sends diplomat home after indictment

As Devyani Khobragade left New York after being charged with making fraudulent visa application for her maid, New Delhi asked for an US official of similar rank to leave India.

NEW DELHI // An Indian envoy whose arrest and strip search in New York caused a diplomatic furore returned home yesterday after being indicted by a federal grand jury in Manhattan and then ordered to leave the country.

The case has caused a serious rift between the United States and India, which yesterday asked the US Embassy in New Delhi to remove one of its officers in the ongoing spat sparked by the arrest of Devyani Khobragade in New York.

India has described Ms Khobragade’s treatment as outrageous and heavy-handed. She had been facing charges of underpaying her Indian-born housekeeper and lying about it on a visa form.

The Press Trust of India, citing government sources, said India had reason to believe the US official asked to leave yesterday holds roughly the same rank that Ms Khobragade held as a deputy consul general in New York and was involved in her case.

“Devyani today left the US with full diplomatic immunity, vindicating the stand that whatever dispute being raised in the US is a prerogative of sovereign country, India, and only can be adjudicated by Indian courts,” said her father, Uttam Khobragade, a retired bureaucrat.

The issue of immunity is key to the case, which erupted a month ago when Ms Khobragade, a 39-year-old mother of two, was arrested. She was strip searched and kept in a cell with other criminal defendants before being released on US$250,000 (Dh917,500) bail.

In recent weeks, federal officials have said that Ms Khobragade’s immunity is limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. But on Thursday, a US government official in Washington said the US had accepted India’s request to accredit her to the United Nations, which confers broader immunity.

It would be almost unprecedented for the US to deny such a request unless the diplomat was a national security risk.

The US then asked the government of India to waive the newly granted immunity so they could prosecute her but New Delhi refused.

The US then “requested her departure” from the country, said a US government official.

Ms Khobragade claimed to pay her Indian maid $4,500 a month but gave her far less than the US minimum wage. The indictment said Mxs Khobragade had made multiple false representations to US authorities, or caused them to be made, to obtain a visa for a personal domestic worker. She planned to bring the worker to the US in September 2012 when she worked at the Consulate General of India in New York.

Ms Khobragade has maintained her innocence.

Her lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said his client was “pleased to be returning to her country”.

“Her head is held high,” he said. “She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known.”

The maid, Sangeeta Richard, on Thursday said that she had decided to come to the US to work for a few years to support her family and then return to India.

“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,” she said.

She said she tried to return to India because of how she had been treated but her request was denied.

“I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did – you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you,” said Ms Richard, who has been vilified in India and accused of blackmailing her employer.

In a letter to the judge on Thursday, prosecutors said there was no need for an arraignment because Ms Khobragade had “very recently” been given diplomatic immunity status. The charges will remain pending until she can be brought to court to face them, through a waiver of immunity or her return to the US without immunity status.

* Associated Press