Indian envoy Devyani Khobragade ‘heartened’ as US ends case over maid

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 March, 2014, 8:07pm

An Indian diplomat whose arrest and strip-search spurred an international incident has had charges against her dismissed by a US federal judge.

The judge's ruling on Wednesday said Devyani Khobragade had diplomatic immunity when she was indicted on charges of fraudulently obtaining a work visa for her housekeeper and lying about the maid's pay.

The judge did what the law required ... the rule of law prevailed

But the ruling leaves open the possibility that prosecutors could bring a new indictment against her. The US prosecutor's office in Manhattan did not immediately comment on its plans.

Khobragade's lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said she was pleased by the ruling.

"The judge did what the law required, and that is: that a criminal proceeding against an individual with immunity must be dismissed," Arshack said.

"She [Khobragade] is hugely frustrated by what has occurred. She is heartened that the rule of law prevailed."

News that Khobragade was strip-searched chilled US-Indian relations, and US Secretary of State John Kerry called a top Indian official to express his regret over what happened.

After being indicted, Khobragade complied with a State Department order to leave the US. The Indian government then asked Washington to withdraw a diplomat from New Delhi. The United States complied.

Wednesday's ruling centres on the complexities of different levels of legal protection afforded to diplomats.

When Khobragade was arrested in December, US officials said her status as a consular officer provided immunity limited to acts performed in the exercise of official functions. She disagreed, and then, on the day before her January 9 indictment, she got a new appointment that conferred broader immunity.

Regardless of Khobragade's status when she was arrested, her later appointment gave her immunity when indicted and means the case must be dismissed, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote.

And while Khobragade's immunity ended when she left the country, US prosecutors still did not have jurisdiction over her, the judge wrote.

The judge said that mooted the question of whether the crimes Khobragade was accused of would have been considered "official acts" covered by the earlier, more limited immunity. If not, the judge wrote, "then there is currently no bar to a new indictment against Khobragade".

A federal prosecutor said in December that Khobragade was treated very well while detained. Preet Bharara said Khobragade was afforded courtesies most Americans would not get — such as being allowed to make phone calls for two hours to sort out personal matters — after she was discreetly arrested outside her children's Manhattan school.

Khobragade was arrested on charges she lied on a visa application about how much she paid her Indian housekeeper. Prosecutors said the maid received less than US$3 per hour.

Bharara said Khobragade, who had 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 underwent.