Indian diplomat in US held over visa fraud allegations

Devyani Khobragade, deputy consul general at the Indian consulate in New York and a Chevening scholar, was arrested on Thursday for allegedly presenting fraudulent documents and materially false statements to the state department in support of a visa application for an Indian national employed by her as a babysitter at her home in New York.

She has been charged with one count of visa fraud and one count of making false statements, which carry maximum sentences of 10 years and five years in prison, respectively.

Khobragade, 39, was taken into custody as she was dropping her daughter to school at around 9 am on Thursday after US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, India-born Preet Bharara, announced charges of visa fraud against her.

Khobragade, mother of two young daughters, was taken into custody and produced before US magistrate Judge Debra Freeman late in the afternoon and was later released on a bond of $250,000 after she pleaded not guilty in the court.

Her lawyer informed the court of his client's diplomatic immunity as a consulate officer and will defend her claims in the case with support of relevant papers.

The court has posted the case for hearing on 13 January 2014.

Khobragade, who is deputy consul general at the Consulate General of India in New York, was serving as the acting consul general at the time of her arrest and the development could lead to a diplomatic face-off between India and the US.

Khobragade joined the Consulate last year and has previously been posted in Germany, Italy and Pakistan.

The Indian Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying it had "immediately conveyed its strong concern" to the US government over the action taken against Khobragade.

"The US side has been urged to resolve the matter with due sensitivity, taking into account...the diplomatic status of the officer concerned," the embassy said.

The Indian diplomatic corps in New York condemned the unprecedented and inappropriate action of arresting a diplomat.

The embassy, however, said it had been informed that Khobragade was taken into custody by law enforcement authorities, adding that the action was apparently taken on the basis of allegations raised by the officer's former Indian domestic assistant, Sangeeta Richard, who has been absconding since June this year.

The high court in Delhi had, in September, issued an-interim injunction to restrain Richard from instituting any actions or proceedings against Khobragade outside India on the terms or conditions of her employment.

"The US government had subsequently been requested to locate Richard and facilitate the service of an arrest warrant, issued by the Metropolitan Magistrate of the South District Court in New Delhi under Sections 387, 420 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code," the embassy said, adding that the existing court case in India against Richard has already been brought to the attention of the US government.

Announcing the charges against Khobragade, Bharara said, "Foreign nationals brought to the United States to serve as domestic workers are entitled to the same protections against exploitation as those afforded to United States citizens.

"The false statements and fraud alleged to have occurred here were designed to circumvent those protections so that a visa would issue 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."

The criminal complaint alleged Khobragade had made false statements about the salary and employment terms of the domestic help she had got from India. The complaint did not name Richard.

The complaint alleged that Khobragade prepared and electronically submitted an application for an A-3 visa for the Indian national who was to be her personal employee beginning in November 2012 in New York.

The visa application stated that the domestic help would be paid $4,500 per month and Khobragade and the domestic help also signed an employment contract which stated that she would pay her the prevailing or minimum wage, whichever is greater, resulting in an hourly salary of $9.75.

Prior to the contract, it was agreed between Khobragade and her domestic worker that she would pay Rs30,000 per month. At 40 hours per week, it was equivalent to $573.07 monthly or $3.31 per hour. Khobragade, however, instructed the help to say that she would work 40 hours per week and that she would be paid $9.75 per hour, and not to say anything about being paid Rs30,000 per month.

After submitting the contract to the US Department of State, Khobragade allegedly told her domestic help that she needed to sign another employment contract, which provided that the domestic help's maximum monthly salary, including overtime allowance, will not exceed Rs30,000. It also did not contain any provision about the normal number of working hours per week.

Suneeta Dewan, an attorney present at the hearing, said Khorbragade had employed the domestic help in her personal capacity and not diplomatic capacity. As a result, diplomatic immunity may not apply in the case.