The alleged crimes and the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, Deputy Consul General to the Indian Embassy in New York:
On December 13th, 2013, Devyani Khobragade (39), a 1999 batch IFS official and presently holding the portfolio of the Indian Deputy Consul General in the Indian Embassy of New York, was brutally arrested by the US police. A mother of two young daughters, Ms Khobragade was arrested on the streets and handcuffed like a cheap criminal, while she was dropping off her daughters to school. The arrest was made while she exited the school complexes.
The charges against her are, one of furnishing false information in the Visa application of an Indian national who worked for her as a babysitter at a wage of less than four dollars per hour. She was released after posting a recognizance bond of USD 250,000 after pleading not guilty. It seems that her arrest warrant was issued by one Preet Bharara, also an individual of Indian origin, and one of the chief Federal prosecutors of Manhattan, who had accused Ms Khobragade of providing a certain Sangeeta Richard with counterfeit documents. Sangeeta Richard happened to be Ms Khobragade’s housemaid and babysitter for the period of November 2012 to June 2013 in her New York residence. Charges of exploitation had also been brought against Ms Khobragade on the grounds that she had compelled Sangeeta Richard to work for her for ‘less than fair’ wages. If the charges against Ms Khobragade are made to stick, then she is looking at a jail sentence of a maximum of 15 years. As commented by Preet Bharara, “This type of fraud on the United States and the exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated”.
India had requested US of treating the case of Ms Khobragade with delicacy keeping in mind the diplomatic capacity of the accused.
The Indian Embassy in Washington declared that the status of Sangeeta Richard is absconding since June and there is a warrant out for her on grounds of defrauding and coercion. Sangeeta Richard on the other hand had brought the allegation that she was entitled to a salary of USD 4500 as per the agreements of the recruitment conditions pertaining to her visa. She further added that Ms Khobragade had slashed her due salary to an amount of USD 537, and had exploited her by making her work for more than 40 hours per week.
Reaction of the US authorities following the arrest of Ms Khobragade:
The surprising arrest of Ms Khobragade came only a day after the Indian Foreign Secretary, Sujata Singh, concluded her decidedly productive Washington trip which has further deepened the critical diplomatic situation between India and the US. The US Government had expressed that the arrest of the Indian Deputy Consul General on the grounds of the Visa fraud case will hopefully not adversely affect the bilateral relations that USA presently has with India. As per the statements of an US State Department spokesperson, “We are handling this incident through the law enforcement channels. We have a long – standing partnership with India, and we expect that that partnership will continue”. The US Justice Department, however, demurred from commenting on the case of Ms Khobragade, particularizing the issue as an awaiting court case.
India’s reaction to the ill treatment meted out by the US authorities to one of its senior diplomats
While Ms Khobragade’s defense counsel had dubbed her street arrest as outrageous and irregular with no chance to offer an explanation, India had vehemently objected to the arrest of its Deputy Consul General in New York. India has termed such harsh treatments of the US Department of Justice to an Indian diplomat as ‘absolutely unacceptable’. Following the arrest of Ms Khobragade, the Charge d’ Affaires, Taranjit Singh Sandhu had organized a meet with the senior officials of the Justice Department and had put forward a request for the earnest decision on this issue without delay. Meanwhile, the statement issued on the behalf of the Indian Embassy clearly outlined the grievances over the unjust arrest of a senior Indian diplomat, “It was conveyed in no uncertain terms that this kind of treatment to one of our diplomats is absolutely unacceptable”.
Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh, in Delhi, had called upon the US Ambassador Nancy Powell and notified her to communicate India’s ‘shock’ over the absolutely unacceptable treatment’ that had been administered to one of the country’s senior diplomats. US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal held a prolonged discussion with the Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian Embassy. As per the statements of the Indian Embassy, “It was emphasized that Dr. Devyani Khobragade is a diplomat, who is in the US in pursuance of her duties and hence is entitled to the courtesy due to a diplomat in the country of her work”. The statement further added, “She is also a young mother of two small children. Government of India is shocked and appalled at the manner in which she had been humiliated by the US authorities”.
The claims of Ms. Khobragade’s defense counsel that she is entitled to diplomatic immunity, has been brushed off by the federal law enforcements citing that the accusations against her do not come under the norms of the Vienna Convention. As further elaborated by a US State Department spokesperson, “Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Indian Deputy Consul General enjoys immunity from US courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions”. Meanwhile, Ms Khobragade’s defense counsel, one Daniel Arshack described to the Indian media in detail of the ill treatment meted out to a senior Indian diplomat by the US authorities. Mr Arshack informed that, when Ms Khobragade was produced in court she was already cuffed. He further informed that following her arrest at about 10AM and her subsequent production in the court at about 4 PM, she had been locked up in a ‘secure holding cell’ for the intermediate six hours like a two bit drug peddler. He had further added that, as a senior diplomat, she had indeed been ‘treated incredibly shabbily’ and furthermore, she was not given any chances to surrender as is usually the practiced norm in such cases.
The High Court Order and the present situation of the case against Ms. Khobragade:
In the meantime, the New Delhi High Court had issued an arrest warrant against Miss Sangeeta Richard along with a decree prohibiting her to take any legal actions against Ms Khobragade, but the US authorities seem unconcerned about the injunction of the High Court. Ms Khobragade had been explicitly instructed by the US authorities to pay her bail bond of USD 250,000, submit her passport and other documents pertaining to international travel. Strictures had also been imposed on her regarding the underrated employment charges, as well as on communication of any form with Ms Richard and her family. While Ms Khobragade’s defense counsel Mr Arshack suggested that, “We are confident of her complete vindication”, the charges slapped on Ms Khobragade by the US Department of Justice will be under the investigation of the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.
The specific charges pressed upon her are one of furnishing the authority with ‘materially false and fraudulent documents’ pertaining to Ms Sangeeta Richard in an attempt to employ Ms Richard as a household help in Ms Khobragade’s Manhattan residence. Added to this is the violation of the visa employment contract, when Ms Khobragade had retained Ms Richard as a babysitter at a much lower salary than what was mentioned in the contract.
Union Minister of External Affairs, Salman Khurshid had voiced strong opposition against the public arrest of the Deputy Consul General, dubbing it as an insult as evident from his statement, “We consider it as an insult. US has been apprised about our stand on this and we are awaiting its response…..and do the needful after it is received”.
In all this excitement, I have some questions which I might forget to ask. How can the US Justice Department frame a case against Ms Khobragade without the testimony of Miss Richards, especially when Ms Richard is absconding since June 2013? And lastly, how would the hotshot Manhattan prosecutor, Preet Bharara, who was instrumental in the arrest of Ms Khobragade, and the US Department of Justice, react if the same treatment was given to an US Embassy personnel, here, in India???!!!