Former prosecutor Preet Bharara says diplomat Devyani Khobragade was strip-searched, could’ve been avoided

Updated on Mar 19, 2019 08:27 PM IST

Devyani Khobragade, a diplomat at the Indian consulate in New York, was arrested on December 12, in 2013. She was charged with providing false information in the visa application for a domestic help she was bringing from India.

Bharara’s office had pressed fresh charges against Khobragade even after a New York court had dismissed earlier accusations against her citing her diplomatic immunity.
Bharara’s office had pressed fresh charges against Khobragade even after a New York court had dismissed earlier accusations against her citing her diplomatic immunity.
Washington, Hindustan Times | ByYashwant Raj

Preet Bharara, a former US prosecutor, has confirmed in an autobiography released Tuesday that a female Indian diplomat arrested in 2013 for alleged visa fraud in the hiring of a domestic help was strip-searched, as widely believed, and acknowledged, as significantly, it could have been “avoided”.

Devyani Khobragade, a diplomat at the Indian consulate in New York, was arrested on December 12, in 2013, immediately after she had dropped off her children at their school. She was charged with providing false information in the visa application for a domestic help she was bringing from India.

As Khobragade, an officer of the Indian Foreign Service, was checked into custody, she was strip-searched. The incident precipitated the worst crisis in India-US relations in recent years. New Delhi retaliated by removing extra-security barriers from outside the US embassy in New Delhi, and the United States threw open, equally churlishly, blocked parking lots outside the Indian embassy in Washington DC.

At the heart of it was Bharara, the Indian American US attorney of the Southern District of New York, America’s most prestigious public prosecution office with oversight over Wall Street, the hub of global financial network, and the UN, with the member countries’ permanent missions. His office prosecuted the Khobragade case, and was seen by critics then as an over-reach in dissonance with the then administration’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue.

“Khobragade was afforded a number of courtesies during the course of her arrest, because of her diplomatic status, but she was strip-searched per regular procedure by the US Marshals Service in the SDNY (Southern District of New York),” Bharara writes in his book, “Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law” released on Tuesday.

He added, most notably, “That could have and should have been avoided, given that no one would have sought pretrial detention.”

And here is what the Indian government had said then. “The action taken against her (Khobragade) was not in keeping with the Vienna Convention. There were no courtesies in the treatment that was meted out to the diplomat, under the normal definition of that word in the English language.”

Indians were outraged not so much by the arrest of an Indian diplomat as the fact that the diplomat was a woman and she was arrested as soon as she had dropped off her children to their school and, most significantly, she was strip-searched at the time of her being checked into custody.

American authorities had then sought to portray the arrest and the following strip-search as procedural issues.

That case, Bharara laments, turned him into “persona non grata in the country of my birth”.

Bharara seeks to shirk responsibility for the case, which he says he he is proud ot, and writes in book, “The State Department opened the case … the State Department investigated it; … career agents in the State Department asked career prosecutors in my office to approve criminal charges.”

He offers few details of how the case unravelled in a rush to portray himself as a victim of media backlash in India, on which he lingered longer than on the facts.

There is nothing in the chapter on the Khobragade case on talks between India and the United States at the time to resolve an issue both countries were eager to put behind. Bharara might not have been involved in them as a prosecutor, but he had appeared at odds with the administration.

Then US secretary of state John Kerry had called India’s national security advisor Shivshankar Menon to express regrets over the incident, even as Bharara’s prosecutors had pressed ahead with their case against Khobragade. Bharara offers no details of these talks, and, as said before, he might not have known.

But he did know something, apparently. “The then secretary of state, John Kerry, was pressured to make the case go away,” Bharara claims in the book, without revealing details of who was pressuring the secretary of state, and why.

Bharara’s office had pressed fresh charges against Khobragade even after a New York court had dismissed earlier accusations against her citing her diplomatic immunity.

The former US attorney was fired by President Donald Trump a few months after he took office, abruptly ending his career that had earned him the title of “Sheriff of Wall Street” for the stocks fraud cases his office had prosecuted successfully including those against Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta.

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