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New York -
An Indian diplomat accused of lying about how much she paid her housekeeper left the United States after she was indicted on two criminal charges and Indian authorities refused to waive her immunity, authorities said.
Devyani Khobragade, who had been strip-searched when arrested, left the country by plane on Thursday night after being charged by a federal grand jury with visa fraud and making false statements in a case that has triggered an outcry in India, a senior US official said. She's accused of fraudulently obtaining a work visa for her New York housekeeper.
A US government official in Washington who wasn't authorised to speak about the case publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity said the US accepted India's request to accredit her to the United Nations, which confers broader immunity than what she enjoyed as a consular official. It would be almost unprecedented for the US to deny such a request unless the diplomat was a national security risk.
The United States asked the government of India to waive the immunity, but the Indians refused, so the US then “requested her departure” from the country, the official said.
At a court hearing late Thursday involving only lawyers in the case, US District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin was told by Khobragade's lawyer, Daniel Arshack, that he had told Khobragade not to board a flight Thursday afternoon until he had informed the judge presiding over her case that she has diplomatic immunity and had been ordered by the Department of State to leave the country.
The judge said it seemed odd that bail conditions continued to contain language that Khobragade could not leave New York when the Department of State had ordered her to do so.
“If she wants to go from India to China or something, it is not anybody's business right now. To say you may not travel outside the Southern District is kind of silly at this point,” the judge said. “They have ordered her out and agreed she has diplomatic immunity now.”
The judge said Khobragade “is permitted to obey the order of the State Department without any adverse consequence to her and her sureties,” though she said Khobragade could be arrested and forced to answer the indictment if she returned to the United States without diplomatic immunity.
Arshack said Khobragade, whose nighttime flight from Kennedy Airport was delayed a couple of hours before finally taking off, was “pleased to be returning to her country.”
“Her head is held high,” the lawyer said. “She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known.”
Authorities say Khobragade claimed to pay her Indian maid $4,500 per month but gave her far less than the US minimum wage. The indictment said Khobragade had made multiple false representations to US authorities, or caused them to be made, to obtain a visa for a personal domestic worker. She planned to bring the worker to the United States in September 2012 when she worked at the Consulate General of India in New York, according to the indictment.
Her arrest last month sparked outrage in India after revelations that she was strip-searched and thrown in a cell with other criminal defendants before being released on $250 000 bail.
The maid, Sangeeta Richard, said in her first public statements Thursday that she had decided to come to the US to work for a few years to support her family and then return to India.
“I never thought that things would get so bad here, that I would work so much that I did not have time to sleep or eat or have time to myself,” she said in a statement released by the anti-trafficking group Safe Horizon.
She tried to return to India because of how she'd been treated, she said, but her request was denied.
“I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did - you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you,” said Richard, who has been vilified in India and accused of blackmailing her employer.
Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, has maintained her innocence.
In a letter to the judge on Thursday, prosecutors said there was no need for an arraignment because Khobragade had “very recently” been given diplomatic immunity status; they also mistakenly said she'd already left the United States.
A spokesman for prosecutors later clarified that the mix-up came because the Department of State advised that she was to have left the country Thursday afternoon.
The charges will remain pending until she can be brought to court to face them, through a waiver of immunity or her return to the US without immunity status, the letter from the office of US Attorney Preet Bharara said.
Arshack said he was pleased the Department of State had recognised Khobragade's diplomatic immunity.
He said the confusion over whether his client had left the country was “emblematic of the series of blunders which has contributed to the false charges brought against her.” He said Khobragade did not make any false statements and paid her domestic worker what she was entitled to be paid. -