NEW YORK -- Prosecutors charged an Indian diplomat with visa fraud Thursday for lying to cover up her housekeeper’s wretched working conditions, but it was not clear if the woman whose arrest sparked an international uproar would face U.S. justice.
The U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, said in court documents that he understood the defendant, Devyani Khobragade, had been granted diplomatic immunity and had “departed the United States today.”
“Therefore the charges shall remain pending until such time as she can be brought to court,” he said.
Later, a spokesman for Bharara said Khobragade had not left the country after all.
[Updated, 8:29 p.m. PST Jan. 9: Late Thursday, however, the Associated Press reported that she had left the U.S. after a court hearing attended only by attorneys in the case. Her flight from Kennedy International Airport was delayed a couple of hours, the AP said.]
[Updated, 3:50 p.m. PST Jan. 9: Earlier, Khobragade’s attorney had issued a statement saying she was "pleased to be returning to her country.”
“Her head is held high,” the attorney, Daniel N. Arshack, said. “She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to [ensuring] that the truth is known.”]
The indictment was sure to fuel the Indian government’s anger over U.S. prosecutors’ pursuit of Khobragade, 39, who arrived in New York in November 2012 to serve as the Indian deputy consul general.
Her arrest last month and strip search enraged Indians and drew in Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who “expressed his regret” over the incident to India’s national security advisor.
Bharara said Khobragade was treated no differently than others arrested on federal criminal charges. He took the unusual step of issuing a statement questioning why so many people were defending Khobragade while ignoring her housekeeper’s plight.
The 20-page indictment issued Thursday accuses Khobragade of lying on a November 2012 visa application submitted on her housekeeper’s behalf, because she knew the woman’s true working conditions violated U.S. labor laws. Among other things, it said Khobragade claimed on the form that the housekeeper would earn $4,500 per month.
Once the housekeeper obtained her visa, and with just hours to go before they flew out of India for New York, court documents say Khobragade forced the woman to sign an agreement with far different working conditions.
After the two arrived in New York, prosecutors say the housekeeper was paid the equivalent of $1.42 an hour and forced to work more than 100 hours per week as she cooked, cleaned, and cared for Khobragade’s two children. She never was provided pay stubs, was only paid once a month instead of biweekly as required, and was denied sick days, according to the indictment. It also said that Khobragade held onto the worker’s passport.
“On one occasion, the victim had to ask to see a doctor several times before Khobragade relented,” the court papers say. “Khobragade told the victim not to get sick because it was expensive.”
The housekeeper came to the United States on an A-3 visa, which requires a domestic worker to get at least one day off per week and earn at least the state or federal minimum wage, whichever is greater.
In June, the housekeeper fled Khobragade’s home and sought help from a nonprofit organization that works with victims of human trafficking.
The indictment comes a day after the Indian government stepped up its crackdown on U.S. officials in the Indian capital, New Delhi. On Wednesday, it ordered the American Embassy there to stop selling alcohol and other imported duty-free items to non-diplomats, one of the more popular services available to Americans in New Delhi.
It also told the embassy to stop letting non-diplomats use the beauty salon, swimming pool, gym, and other facilities at a popular club on the embassy grounds.