Delhi: At a time when the United States and India are trying to move beyond a rift over an Indian diplomat’s arrest in a domestic worker case, news that charges against her had been dropped – for now – was greeted with a mix of scepticism and relief.
However US prosecutors said they might seek a new indictment against Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul general who was arrested in December and charged with lying to investigators on the visa application for her domestic employee. Prosecutors did not provide a specific timeline
“The judge ruled there’s no bar to a new indictment, and we intend to proceed accordingly,” said a spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, James Margolin.
It is unclear what would happen if the office of US Attorney Preet Bharara decided to re-indict the diplomat.
“Any re-indictment would only be for show since the government well knows this case is never going to be tried,” said Ms Khobragade’s lawyer, Daniel Arshack.
But beyond the shadow of fresh criminal charges, the diplomat still may face some snags. Indian newspapers are reporting that Dr Khobragade is being investigated by Indian authorities because her children allegedly have both Indian and US passports, which is illegal in India.
Dr Khobragade’s arrest, strip-search and indictment caused a firestorm in India and was widely viewed as unnecessarily harsh treatment by US law enforcement. The Indian government went to great lengths to show its displeasure, taking a series of retaliatory steps against the US Embassy in New Delhi – removing security barricades, launching an investigation into the visa status of employees at the American Embassy School and limiting the embassy’s distribution of imported alcohol.
On Thursday, Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, said he hoped that the judge’s ruling would bring the controversy to a close. But later in the day, the ministry issued a terse statement noting that the “judgement does not consider the merits of the case”.
Dr Khobragade, 39, was arrested outside her daughter’s school in December and charged with visa fraud and making false statements about the work agreement with her Indian maid, Sangeeta Richard. Dr Khobragade and her husband had brought Richard to the US from India to work as a maid and nanny.
In the January indictment, prosecutors alleged that Dr Khobragade had paid Ms Richard only $US573 ($635) a month – a “legally insufficient” wage – and made her work more than 100 hours a week. The maid eventually left Dr Khobragade’s home and sought protection from an activist organisation that helps victims of human trafficking. Dr Khobragade’s family has maintained throughout that the maid was well treated.
Shortly before the indictment, India transferred Dr Khobragade to a position at the United Nations, which gave her full immunity from prosecution.
Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that regardless of whether Dr Khobragade had immunity when she was arrested, her UN status at the time of the indictment mandated that the charges be dropped.
Dr Khobragade was expelled from the US in January.