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New U.S. charges against diplomat rile India

MUMBAI, India — The Indian government Saturday expressed its displeasure with the U.S. Justice Department for refiling criminal charges against a diplomat whose arrest in New York last year on charges of underpaying her domestic help caused a crisis in bilateral relations.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan on Friday issued a new indictment against the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, just two days after a judge dismissed a similar indictment on diplomatic immunity grounds. Khobragade has returned to India and is unlikely ever to answer the charges in New York.

Foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin called the new indictment “an unnecessary step” that would cause further trouble between Washington and New Delhi.

“Any measures consequent to this decision in the U.S. will unfortunately impact upon efforts on both sides to build the India-U.S. strategic partnership, to which both sides are committed,” Akbaruddin said in a statement.

India has maintained that the case against Khobragade has no merit. The 39-year-old diplomat, who was serving as deputy consul general at the Indian mission in New York, was arrested in December after her Indian housekeeper accused her of paying her far below the minimum wage.

Prosecutors said Khobragade lied to U.S. authorities to obtain a work visa for the housekeeper, claiming she was paying her about $500 a month while actually paying her less than $3 an hour. Khobragade disputed the charges, citing diplomatic immunity.

But when U.S. marshals strip-searched Khobragade and held her in detention alongside other prisoners, Indian officials vehemently complained that she had been mistreated. The incident stirred up long-simmering mistrust between Washington and New Delhi as Indian officials accused the United States of arrogance and imposed retaliatory restrictions on Americans in the Indian capital.

The U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, maintained that Khobragade was treated in accordance with the law and given some privileges that American arrestees wouldn’t get, such as being allowed extra time to make phone calls and arrange care for her two children, who remain in the United States.

The dispute caused headaches for the State Department and led Nisha Desai Biswal, the assistant secretary of State for South Asia, to cancel a planned visit to India. Biswal traveled to New Delhi last week and sounded a conciliatory note, saying the case "touched an emotional nerve in this country, for very understandable reasons."

On Jan. 9, the day before Khobragade was indicted, India assigned her to its U.N. mission, a role with broader diplomatic immunity than her consular position, and brought her back to New Delhi. U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled Wednesday that the new position granted her immunity from prosecution but left the door open for prosecutors to file a new indictment because her immunity ended when she left the United States.

Akbaruddin, the foreign ministry spokesman, said that as far as India was concerned the case was closed.

“Now that Dr. Khobragade has returned to India, the court in the United States has no jurisdiction in India over her,” he said. “[The Indian] government will therefore no longer engage on this case in the United States’ legal system.”

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Twitter: @SBengali

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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