Indian diplomat strip-searched in US is transferred to UN

Bid to defuse row and secure immunity against prosecution may depend on US approving move

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:26am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:26am

India said yesterday it had transferred the diplomat at the centre of a row with the United States to its UN delegation, a move that it hopes will give her protection from prosecution for visa fraud and underpaying a maid.

Whether the accreditation of Devyani Khobragade as a member of India's UN mission leads to a way out of the dispute could depend on the US State Department approving her transfer.

Asoke Mukherji, India's ambassador to the United Nations, said he had written to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon informing him of the 39-year-old diplomat's transfer. The two countries have been at loggerheads for the past week, amid mounting outrage in India over the arrest of Khobragade, who was strip-searched and handcuffed while in custody.

Khobragade was arrested on December 12 and released on US$250,000 bail after giving up her passport and pleading not guilty to charges of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her housekeeper, also an Indian.

At the time of her arrest, Khobragade was serving as deputy consul general in New York, a role which affords less diplomatic protection from US law. She faces a maximum of 15 years' jail if convicted of both counts. In an unusual move, the United States has flown the family of the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, out of India.

Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said earlier that Richard's family had been brought to the US after legal efforts had begun in India "to silence her, and attempts were made to compel her to return to India".

Mukherji said once Khobragade received her diplomatic card at the UN she would be eligible for more privileges, including diplomatic protection from arrest. "We have welcomed her into our team here at the UN. I have had a meeting with her," Mukherji said. "As soon as she is accredited, we hope she will be able to discharge her responsibilities."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to offer any opinion on whether the change in diplomatic status could prevent Khobragade from being rearrested or enable her to leave the United States.

"I don't want to speculate on that," Psaki told reporters.

But she added that a change in status would not provide a "clean slate from past charges".