A federal prosecutor has ventured into the tense relationship between the US and India, defending the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat held on visa charges and saying she was treated very well, even given coffee and offered food while detained.
US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who made the highly unusual move of issuing a lengthy statement addressing the arrest and issues not in a criminal complaint, said on Wednesday that Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was afforded courtesies most Americans would not get — such as being allowed to make phone calls for two hours to arrange child care and sort out personal matters — after she was discretely arrested by US Department of State agents outside her children’s Manhattan school.
Khobragade was arrested last week on charges that she lied on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national. Prosecutors say the maid received less than US$3 per hour for her work.
Bharara said Khobragade, who has pleaded not guilty, was not handcuffed, restrained or arrested in front of her children. And he said that while she was “fully searched” in private by a female deputy marshal, the move was a standard safety practice all defendants undergo.
Khobragade has been transferred to India’s mission to the UN, according to her lawyer and a former colleague. It is unclear how such a move might affect her immunity from prosecution, and a UN spokesman said it had not received a necessary transfer request from her by Wednesday.
News that Khobragade was strip-searched has chilled US-Indian relations, and US Secretary of State John Kerry called a top Indian official to express his regret over what happened. India has revoked privileges for US diplomats in protest.
Bharara, who was born in India, but moved with his family to New Jersey, defended his case.
“One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country,” he said in the statement. “And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?”
Khobragade, who was India’s deputy consul-general in New York, would face a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration if convicted.
She has said she has full diplomatic immunity. The US Department of State disputes that, saying hers is more limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. Her work status as of Wednesday was unclear.
Indian consulate spokesman Venkatasamy Perumal said Khobragade was transferred on Tuesday to India’s UN mission, but he declined to comment further, and requests for comment made to the UN mission’s first secretary were not immediately returned.
US Department of State deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that when such a transfer request is made to the UN, the UN Secretariat would inform the US Department of State. It would then have to be reviewed by appropriate authorities in both places.
Khobragade’s lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said he did not know what she would be doing at the UN mission, but “I fully expect her to stay in the US.”