Unfazed by the outrage over the arrest and subsequent treatment of senior Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, the India-born U.S. prosecutor Preet Bharara on Thursday defended the action against her and confirmed that her maid’s family has been “evacuated” from India.
Acknowledging that maid Sangeeta Richard’s family has been brought to the U.S., Mr. Bharara said a legal process was started in India to “silence her and attempts were made to compel her to return to India“.
A 1999 batch IFS officer, Khobragade, India’s Deputy Consul General in New York, was arrested on December 12, on visa fraud charges by the State Department’s diplomatic security bureau, and then handed over to the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS).
In her complaint, the maid accused the diplomat of violating U.S. laws by underpaying her and forcing her to work for 19 hours a day.
Ms. Khobragade was taken into custody as she was dropping her daughter to school before being released on a $250,000 bond after pleading not guilty in court.
In a statement here, Mr. Bharara said the victim’s family was confronted in numerous ways regarding this case.
“Some focus should perhaps be put on why it was necessary to evacuate the family and what actions were taken in India vis-a-vis them. This office and the Justice Department are compelled to make sure that the victims, witnesses and their families are safe and secure while cases are pending.”
“This Office’s sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law - no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are,” he said.
In Washington, the Indian Embassy in a statement alleged that the U.S. government did not respond to its series of requests of tracing the Indian maid, who was missing since June this year, and preventing her from blackmailing Ms. Khobragade.
According to the statement, the Embassy and the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi have been taking up the maid’s matter with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi since June this year.
“No response was received from the U.S. side for any of these communications,” it said, giving details of the series of communications it made to the U.S. Government in the last several months.
The Embassy said it received State Department’s letter dated September 4, which requested it to enquire into the allegations brought in by the maid disputing her terms of employment with Ms. Khobragade and seeking the findings of the Embassy.
The letter, sources said, was one-sided and projected the interest of the missing maid and did not take note of any of the communications made by the Indian officials to the U.S. in this regard.
As a result, both the Indian Embassy in Washington DC and the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi in separate but similar communications to them said that the “tone and the content” of the letter was objectionable.
In his three-page unusual explanation, Mr. Bharara said that Ms. Khobragade evaded U.S. laws designed to protect the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers from exploitation.
Rebutting reports of the diplomat not being given proper treatment, he claimed she was “accorded courtesies well beyond what other defendants, most of whom are American citizens, are accorded”.
The U.S. prosecutor denied that she was arrested in front of her children and handcuffed.
“She was not, as has been incorrectly reported, arrested in front of her children. The agents arrested her in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained.”
“In fact, the arresting officers did not even seize her phone as they normally would have. Instead, they offered her the opportunity to make numerous calls to arrange personal matters and contact whomever she needed, including allowing her to arrange for child care,” he said.
Mr. Bharara said the entire process lasted approximately two hours and since it was cold outside, the agents let her make those calls from their car and “even brought her coffee and offered to get her food.”
The prosecutor conceded that the diplomat was strip-searched.
“It is true that she was fully searched by a female Deputy Marshal — in a private setting — when she was brought into the U.S. Marshals’ custody, but this is standard practise for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not, in order to make sure that no prisoner keeps anything on his person that could harm anyone, including himself,” he said.
He said there has been “misinformation and factual inaccuracy” in the reporting on the Ms. Khobragade case which is “creating an inflammatory atmosphere”.
“There has been much misinformation and factual inaccuracy in the reporting on the charges against Khobragade. It is important to correct these inaccuracies because they are misleading people and creating an inflammatory atmosphere on an unfounded basis,” he said.
Accusing Ms. Khobragade of fraud, Mr. Bharara said, “Not only did she try to evade the law, but as further alleged, she caused the victim and her spouse to attest to false documents and be a part of her scheme to lie to U.S. government officials.”
“So it is alleged not merely that she sought to evade the law, but that she affirmatively created false documents and went ahead with lying to the U.S. government about what she was doing.”
“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.
“One wonders even more pointedly whether any government would not take action regarding that alleged conduct where the purpose of the scheme was to unfairly treat a domestic worker in ways that violate the law.”
“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?”
He said his office is in charge of prosecution, not the arrest or custody of a defendant and so questions regarding Ms. Khobragade’s arrest by State Department agents “may be better referred to other agencies”.
Mr. Bharara added that as the alleged conduct of Ms. Khobragade makes clear, “there can be no plausible claim that this case was somehow unexpected or an injustice.”
He said while the law is clearly set forth on the State Department website, there have been other public cases in the United States involving other countries, and some involving India, where the mistreatment of domestic workers by diplomats or consular officers was charged criminally.