A file photo of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York. (Reuters)
A Manhattan court on Wednesday rejected diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s request to extend her indictment deadline beyond January 13, clearing the way for her prosecution.
Khobragade had sought more time saying the indictment deadline was “negatively affecting the ability of counsel and the government to engage in productive plea negotiations”.
The diplomat has been in plea bargain talks with Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara’s office, but has, through her lawyer, tried to keep it out of public view.
“The defendant's request for an adjournment of the preliminary hearing date is DENIED,” ruled Sarah Netburn, United States Magistrate Judge for Southern District of New York.
The prosecution has until January 13 to file an indictment -- roughly the same as a chargesheet -- 30 days from arrest (she was arrested on December 12).
On January 13, the court will decide in a preliminary hearing if the case should be committed to trial, a majority of criminal cases reaching this far do end up in trial.
To prevent that possibility, the government encourages plea bargaining, allowing defendants to plead guilty to lesser or fewer charges in return for reduced punishment.
Khorbagade’s choices from the start have been basically three, according to experts. One, she enters into a plea deal, admits guilt and walks away with minimal punishment, a fine.
Two, she pushes for the case to be dropped or dismissed, the preferred choice. But the US department of justice has made it clear it will not drop the case, having come this far.
Third, take a G-1 visa, which apparently is on the table, granting her diplomatic immunity because of her transfer to the Indian mission to the UN, and leave the country.
Sources on both sides insist the demand for dropping the case was unrealistic. Her real options, they added, were a plea deal or leaving the country.
But the leaving the country was not the issue before the court. It only had to decide on Khobragade’s claim that the indictment date was making plea deal discussions difficult.
Her lawyer Daniel Arshack had claimed in a letter to the court that impending deadline was severely hampering communications with the government.
Though he did not describe the nature of those communications, he was referring to plea deal talks, according to a letter filed in response by the Manhattan attorney’s office.
“The defendant has requested only that the preliminary date be adjourned for 30 days for good cause shown,” the judge said, adding, “Because a modification of the hearing date will not itself alter the time period for the filing of an indictment or information, the defendant's concerns regarding the pressures of an impending indictment on plea negotiations will not grant her the relief she seeks.”
Bharara’s office had told the court earlier that the plea deal discussion could continue beyond the indictment, therefore there was no need to extend it for that purpose.
Khobragade has been charged with visa fraud and making false statements, which could together get her a maximum punishment of 15 years if convicted.
But that’s the maximum, government sources have said, adding, she could have gotten away get away with far less as a first-time offender with no history of offenses.