Sangeeta reached "breaking point" in Khobragade household

Updated - November 16, 2021 06:09 pm IST

Published - January 17, 2014 08:30 pm IST - Washington

Sangeeta Richard, the Indian national employed as a domestic worker by former Indian Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade in New York, left her employer’s residence last June “with only the clothes on her back, after reaching her breaking point” in the Khobragade household in Manhattan, a representative of Ms. Richard’s has said.

In a conversation with The Hindu Avaloy Lanning, Senior Director of the Anti-Trafficking Programme at Safe Horizon organisation entirely rejected the suggestion, made by Ms. Khobragade’s father Uttam and others, that Ms. Richard took money and a mobile phone, saying “I believe that to be false.”

When her pleas to Ms. Khobragade, to return her passport to her and let her travel back to India, or at least pay her the legal wage rate of $9.75 per hour as promised in a contract, fell on deaf ears, Ms. Richard left the Khobragade residence in June 23 2013 and subsequently the U.S. brought visa fraud charges against the senior Indian diplomat.

On December 12 2013 Ms. Khobragade was also arrested on the streets of New York and strip-searched in the custody of U.S. Marshals, an incident that sparked off a high-level diplomatic crisis between New Delhi and Washington, leading to India taking retaliatory measures against U.S. diplomats there.

Yet this week Ms. Lanning said that Ms. Richard’s legal status being effectively tied to her employer through the official passport bestowed a “huge means of power” on Ms. Khobragade. In particular she would have been able to say to Ms. Richard, “If you leave [this employment] you are going to be undocumented,” she added.

Explaining that Ms. Khobragade’s leverage in this regard resulted in a significant “emotional impact” on Ms. Richard, Ms. Lanning said it was exacerbated by Ms. Khobragade withholding Ms. Richard’s personal passport, cited as a violation of laws in the U.S. government’s indictment of Ms. Khobragade,

Even though In India Ms. Richard’s family had faced intimidation and people had “knocked on [their] door” they had feared for her safety in the U.S., Ms. Lanning said, adding, “It has got to be devastating” that she cannott return to India.

Ms. Khobragade and the Government of India have initiated a case against Ms. Richard and her family in the Delhi High Court, which quickly issued injunctions and a non-bailable arrest warrant against her.

Ms. Lanning however said that if Ms. Richard stayed on in the U.S. she would be helped further by Safe Horizon. Ms. Richard does speak English and has a chance of integrating, Ms. Lanning added, and her family is “young and energetic.” On the flip side they have been exposed to all of the public comments surrounding this case.

Ms. Lanning, who has worked for 14 years in advocacy, said she has seen a many cases of alleged abuse by diplomats. In numerous such instances Safe Horizon makes preliminary contact with the presumed victim, and then after “pre-certification” work with the person, entailing supporting them financially until they are able to actively begin cooperating with law enforcement, they link them to the authorities.

Until recently many of the cases associated with alleged abuse by diplomats did not witness any arrests or even charging with crimes, usually due to diplomatic immunity. In the Khobragade case, however, Ms. Lanning said that public advocacy by groups such as Safe Horizon is likely to have made the difference.

Paradoxically the fallout in the case in terms of the diplomatic crises and bilateral tension between New Delhi and Washington may have blunted the keenness of U.S. law enforcement to pursue alleged abusers with diplomatic links.

“I’m nervous for what implications this will have for future cases,” Ms. Lanning confessed, adding that she was hopeful that the advocacy community’s efforts could mitigate this effect.

In any case she noted that the U.S. Attorney’s office “has done a great deal of research and is confident and strong of the charges in the case,” brought against Ms. Khobragade, and there was no sign whatsoever that they were wavering or backtracking in the face of the diplomatic fallout.

Ms. Richard, similar to others in the U.S. in her situation, has been granted “continued presence,” a legal status given only to victims of trafficking who are cooperating with authorities in the case. Ms. Lanning explained that continued presence leads to a work permit with authorisation, which in turn leads to a three-year ‘’T-visa and then ultimately the option to apply for permanent residence.

The family of trafficking victims receive what is known as a ‘derivative T-visa,’ she said.

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