New Delhi says it's 'disappointed' at US re-indictment of Indian envoy
By Penelope Macrae, AFP
March 16, 2014, 12:01 am TWN
NEW DELHI -- India on Saturday said it was "disappointed" by new U.S. visa fraud charges against an Indian diplomat over her employment of a domestic servant and warned the move could reignite a bitter row between the countries.
Government spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said India was "disappointed" the U.S. justice department "chose to obtain a second indictment" against Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade even though a U.S. judge threw out similar charges earlier in the week.
"Any measures consequent to this decision in the U.S. will unfortunately impact upon efforts on both sides to build the India-U.S. strategic partnership, to which both sides are committed," the Indian spokesman warned.
"This was an unnecessary step," Akbaruddin said in an emailed statement to AFP, calling the case "without merit" and adding the Indian government will "no longer engage on this case in the United States' legal system."
A New York grand jury re-indicted the senior diplomat accusing her of two counts of visa fraud and making false statements.
Khobragade, who has since returned to India, was arrested Dec. 12 outside her children's school and later strip-searched, enraging the Indian government and some of the Indian public.
The row fanned resentment between the two countries, which had embraced each other as strategic partners.
Indian lawmakers denounced the diplomat's treatment as a violation of national sovereignty and said Washington should not ride roughshod over Indian interests.
The deeply unpopular Congress government, struggling to win back favor in general elections starting next month, has been under heavy domestic political pressure to act tough with Washington.
The fresh charges came two days after a U.S. judge threw out a previous case on grounds the former New York deputy consul-general was granted full diplomatic immunity after her arrest.
The new indictment paints a devastating picture of the lengths to which Khobragade allegedly went to infringe U.S. laws in hiring an Indian nanny-cum-housekeeper when moving to New York in 2012.
U.S. prosecutors, disputing her immunity, accuse Khobragade of forcing her maid to work 100 hours or more a week, even when sick and without a full day off, for US$1.42 or less an hour.
The indictment accuses Khobragade of presenting false information to obtain a visa for her housekeeper and coaching her to lie to U.S. embassy officials.
It says the diplomat drew up a fake contract that conformed with U.S. labor law but made her sign another contract stipulating a salary of US$573 a month or US$6,876 a year without overtime and U.S. legal protections.
The indictment also accuses the diplomat of trying to silence and intimidate the housekeeper, who fled in June 2013 after protesting her conditions.
Khobragade won in January the full immunity granted to Indian mission diplomats to the UN. It was on those grounds she petitioned a U.S. court on Jan. 9 to drop the case, before flying back to India, where she now works for the foreign ministry.
In laying the fresh charges the court said Khobragade's immunity did not cover the time she employed her servant.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, said, "there is currently no bar to a new indictment against her."
The diplomat, who returned to India in January to a hero's welcome, has told media about her anguish in leaving behind in New York her two young daughters and her husband, a U.S. citizen and academic.
U.S. officials have traveled to India and said they want to repair a partnership Washington sees as a potential bulwark against China's growing might.
While Americans took the maid's side, many affluent Indians who pay their servants far less than Khobragade was accused of paying hers, supported the diplomat and viewed her treatment as high-handed superpower behavior.