Washington: One of India’s senior US diplomats has been arrested in New York accused of visa fraud and exploiting her babysitter and housekeeper.
Devyani Khobragade, 39, India’s Deputy Consul General to the US, was charged on Thursday with one count of visa fraud and one count of making false statements, which carry maximum sentences of ten years and five years in prison, respectively.
Khobragade, who looks after political, economic, commercial and women’s affairs at the consulate, pleaded not guilty to the charges levied by Indian-born US attorney Preet Bharara at Manhattan Federal Court and was released on a $250,000 bail.
The Indian Embassy in Washington reacted swiftly and conveyed its “strong concern to the US Government over the action taken against Khobragade.” It also urged the US “to resolve the matter with due sensitivity,” taking into account a pending court case in India and the diplomatic status of Khobragade.
The diplomat was taken into custody by law enforcement authorities in New York on Thursday while she was dropping her daughter at school, the embassy said in a statement. Her lawyer, Daniel Arshack, told a magistrate his client enjoys immunity and will challenge the arrest on those grounds.
Khobragade handed over her passport as a condition of bail and agreed to make no contact with the unnamed housekeeper.
India on Friday summoned US envoy Nancy Powell in New Delhi in protest over the arrest.
Powell was summoned to South Block by Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and told the treatment of Khobragade was “absolutely unacceptable”.
US attorney Bharara alleged Khobragade had caused “materially false and fraudulent statements to be made in support of a visa application for an Indian national employed as a babysitter and housekeeper at her home in New York”.
“Foreign nationals brought to the US to serve as domestic workers are entitled to the same protections against exploitation as those afforded to United States citizens,” he said.
“The false statements and fraud alleged to have occurred here were designed to circumvent those protections so that a visa would be issued for a domestic worker who was promised far less than a fair wage.
“This type of fraud on the United States and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated.”
But the Indian Embassy said action was apparently taken against Khobragade on the basis of allegations raised by the officer’s former India-based domestic assistant, Sangeeta Richard, who absconded in June and has not been seen since.
In June 2011, a former housekeeper sued India’s then Consul General Prabhu Dayal, accusing him of intimidating her into a year of forced labour. A year later he reportedly settled the case out of court on undisclosed terms.