Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was on Friday indicted by a United States jury on charges of visa fraud and making false statement even as she headed back to India after being accorded full diplomatic immunity.
A file photo of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York. (Reuters)
Khobragade was granted the immunity on January 8 under the India-US Headquarters agreement.
"Devyani Khobragade given G1 visa by #USA according her full diplomatic immunity. #India transfers her back. She is now flying home (sic)," Syed Akbaruddin, ministry of external affairs spokesperson, posted on Twitter.
"Devyani Khobragade given G1 visa with full diplomatic immunity on 8 Jan2014," he wrote.
"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.
When the US finally granted Khobragade diplomatic immunity for her transfer to the United Nations it asked India to waive it on January 9 so that she could be prosecuted.
"The request to accredit was accepted," said a US government source, adding, "it would be almost without precedent to deny such a request except in the event of national security risks including espionage."
The US then asked India to waive her immunity so her prosecution in the case could proceed.
Read: Charges against me are 'false and baseless', says Devyani Khobragade
"US requested a waiver of immunity, India denied," said a government source, adding, "US requested her departure."
"The charges remain in place."
That’s what Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara told a New York court earlier in the day.
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Bharara said in a letter to district judge Shira Scheindlin that the 39-year-old diplomat will have to face trial, if she returns to the US without diplomatic immunity,
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.
"We understand that the defendant was very recently accorded diplomatic immunity status and that she departed the United States today," said Bharara.
"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."
"We will alert the court promptly if we learn that the defendant returns to the United States 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.
Khobragade had indeed been granted immunity, but the Indian-born US attorney, knowingly or unknowingly, skipped the part about the US asking India to waive it, and which it refused.
Read: Happy at Devyani’s return, her father thanks govt, media and public
Bharara’s office issued a correction later, setting the record straight, but only partly.
His spokesman said a statement the US attorney’s office had been "advised by the state department that, pursuant to their request, Devyani Khobragade was to have left the United States this afternoon".
And then he quoted her lawyer Daniel Arshack to say she had not left the country yet, as earlier stated and conveyed to the court and the media.
This should hopefully bring an end to a crisis in relations between India and the US starting December 12, when Khobragade was arrested in New York, and strip-searched.
A 1999-batch IFS officer, Khobragade, was arrested on charges of making false declarations in a visa application for her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard. She was released on a $250,000 bond.
She was arrested by the US state department’s bureau of diplomatic security.
Dec 12: Devyani arrested in US for visa fraud
She was charged with paying Richard less than she had promised during the visa process, according to US laws.
At the time of arrest, Khobragade had limited immunity, covering only her actions in line of her duties as a consular officer with the Indian consulate in New York.
Her consular immunity, US government argued at the time of her arrest, did not protect her from local laws.
The Indian government immediately transferred her to its Permanent Mission to the UN, whose staff have full diplomatic immunity from local laws.
A critical part the transfer process was the US, which as the host nation of the UN, grants the relevant G-1 visa which was applied on Khobragade’s behalf on December 20.
There was no indication till Bharara’s note that Khobragade had indeed been granted a visa - the state department spokesperson had said on Wednesday there was no progress.
India had been cranking up pressure on the US through retaliatory actions, canceling energy dialogue most recently.
Dec 17: India curtails 'privileges' accorded to US diplomats
New Delhi had also withdrawn all privileges from US diplomats posted in India and removed security barriers from outside its embassy in New Delhi.
As India ratcheted up the pressure, US secretary of state John Kerry called national security adviser Shivshankar Menon to express regret, which India said will not suffice.
Dec 18: Kerry calls Menon, expresses regret over Devyani's arrest
New Delhi, and Khobragade, also wanted the case against her dropped, which the US government refused to do but initiated plea bargain talks with her.
With the indictment deadline of January 13 (30 days from arrest) looming, a sense of urgency and panic had gripped India with no sign of her G-1 visa, and its promise of full immunity.
(With inputs from PTI)
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