An Indian consular official has left the U.S., officials and her lawyer said, after federal prosecutors filed a criminal indictment accusing her of visa fraud and making false statements about a domestic worker.
The indictment further fuels an international dispute over Devyani Khobragade’s arrest, which has strained relations between the U.S. and India.
It is a more serious step in the criminal-justice process because it means a federal grand jury has heard evidence and decided the case is strong enough to proceed. The indictment also came as a surprise after prosecutors said in court papers earlier this week they were hoping to negotiate a plea deal ahead of her arraignment.
The dispute began last month when Ms. Khobragade, a deputy consul-general for India, was arrested on prosecutors’ charge that she submitted false documents to get a work visa for an Indian woman to work as her babysitter and housekeeper in her family’s Manhattan home. Prosecutors say she grossly underpaid the helper and only allowed her one day off per week. Ms. Khobragade denied all the charges.
A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs on Friday said Ms. Khobragade left the U.S. late Thursday for New Delhi. Her father, Uttam Khobragade, told the Journal that she was expected to reach India on Friday evening. Ms. Khobragade has been transferred to the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and her two children remain in New York, according to a statement on the ministry’s website. In an email, one of her lawyers, Dan Arshack, also said his client had left the U.S.
A federal grand jury voted to charge Ms. Khobragade with two counts visa fraud and making false statements, prosecutors said Thursday. Prosecutors also said that Ms. Khobragade had been accorded “diplomatic immunity status” but it was unclear whether the immunity would protect her from facing trial.
“Dr. Khobragade denies the baseless charges brought by the prosecutor’s office in New York and looks forward to providing the proof that over and over the investigators and prosecutors in this case have been sloppy and wrong,” said Mr. Arshack.
The State Department asked that Ms. Khobragade leave the country, after India denied a request to waive her diplomatic immunity, a U.S. official said.
India has been outraged over the treatment Ms. Khobragade, who was strip-searched after being arrested in December and placed temporarily in a New York City jail, and the fallout has caused a rift in U.S.-Indian relations. The tension continued this week as U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz on Thursday postponed a trip to India that was planned for next week.
Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement of regret over the situation while Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the arrest “deplorable,” and police removed barriers in front of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in apparent retaliation.
The status of Ms Khobragade’s diplomatic immunity has been another source of friction.
The U.S. has requested that India waive her immunity in order to prosecute her, a U.S. official said, but India denied the request. The State Department asked that Ms. Khobragade leave the country, which is protocol when a waiver request isn’t granted, according to the official.
Thursday’s indictment gave previously undisclosed details about the alleged arrangement between Ms. Khobragade and her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard.
Ms. Khobragade allegedly initially offered her housekeeper 20,000 rupees a month but eventually raised the offer to 30,000 rupees per month (or $6,876 a year), which amounted to approximately $3.33 an hour for a 40-hour work week. Thursday’s indictment said that Ms. Khobragade filled out a temporary-work visa application for Ms. Richard, claiming she was paying her $4,500 a month.
Once in the U.S., Ms. Khobragade made Ms. Richard “work often up to 100 or more hours per week without a single full day off,” which the indictment states worked out to $1.42 an hour or less, and withheld the woman’s passport from her, the indictment said.
Ms. Richard fled Ms. Khobragade’s house, according to the indictment, after her requests for more pay and to return to India were denied. Ms. Khobragade subsequently pressured the woman’s husband in India to tell her the housekeeper’s whereabouts, the indictment said, and caused the woman’s family in India to be “contacted by law enforcement.”
But Ms. Khobragade filed in July a complaint against the woman in India, the indictment said, accusing the worker and her husband of making a “false promise to work as domestic assistance” in order to procure an official passport and enter the U.S., where she would subsequently work as a “freelance servant and earn huge money, many times more than that of her agreed salary.” An arrest warrant was issued in India in November charging Ms. Richard, who remains in the U.S., with extortion, cheating and participating in a conspiracy.
“I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did: You have rights, and do not let anyone exploit you,” Ms. Richard said Thursday.
—Jay Solomon, Jacob Gershman and Saptarishi Dutta contributed to this article.
SOURCE: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL