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Indian diplomat indicted, expected to leave US

10 January, 2014

NEW YORK: An Indian diplomat accused of lying about how much she paid her housekeeper was asked to leave the United States on Thursday after she was indicted on two criminal charges and Indian authorities refused to waive immunity, authorities said.

Devyani Khobragade, 39, was charged by a federal grand jury in New York City with visa fraud and making false statements in a case that has triggered an outcry in India. She's accused of fraudulently obtaining a work visa for her New York housekeeper.

Khobragade was expected to leave the country Thursday night, a U.S. government official in Washington said.

The official, who was not authorized to speak about the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. accepted India's request to accredit her to the United Nations, which confers broader immunity than what she enjoyed as a consular official. It would be almost unprecedented for the U.S. to deny such a request unless the diplomat was a national security risk.

The United States asked the government of India to waive the immunity, but the Indians refused, the official said.

The United States then "requested her departure" from the country, the official said.

Authorities say Khobragade claimed to pay her Indian maid $4,500 per month but actually gave her far less than the U.S. minimum wage. The indictment said Khobragade had made multiple false representations to U.S. authorities, or caused them to be made, to obtain a visa for a personal domestic worker. She planned to bring the worker to the United States in September 2012 when she worked at the Consulate General of India in New York, according to the indictment.

The maid, Sangeeta Richard, said in her first public statements Thursday that she had decided to come to the U.S. to work for a few years to support her family, then return to India.

"I never thought that things would get so bad here, that I would work so much that I did not have time to sleep or eat or have time to myself," she said in a statement released by the anti-trafficking group Safe Horizon.

She tried to return to India because of how she'd been treated, she said, but her request was denied.

"I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did - you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you," Richard said.

In India, the housekeeper has been vilified and accused of blackmailing her employer, while Khobragade's arrest last month sparked mass outrage after revelations that she was strip-searched and thrown in a cell with other criminal defendants before being released on $250,000 bail.

Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, has maintained her innocence.

In a letter, prosecutors said there was no need for an arraignment because Khobragade had "very recently" been given diplomatic immunity status; they also mistakenly said she'd already left the United States. But Daniel Arshack, a lawyer for Khobragade, said in a statement soon after that his client was home with her children.

A spokesman for prosecutors later clarified that the mix-up came because the State Department advised that she was to have left the country Thursday afternoon.

The charges will remain pending until she can be brought to court to face them, either through a waiver of immunity or her return to the U.S. without immunity status, the letter from the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.

"We will alert the court promptly if we learn that the defendant returns to the United States in a non-immune capacity, at which time the government will proceed to prosecute this case and prove the charges in the indictment," the letter said.

End.

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