Devyani Khobragade

Devyani Khobragade’s re-indictment dashes hopes of a thaw

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Washington, March 15 (IANS) Dashing hopes of a closure of the Devyani Khobragade affair, Indian American prosecutor Preet Bharara has secured a fresh indictment of the Indian diplomat at the centre of a major India-US diplomatic row.

Two days after a New York judge dismissed the visa fraud case against Devyani Khobragade, India’s then consul general in New York, whose Dec 12 arrest and strip search strained ties between the two countries, a US grand jury Friday again indicted her on same criminal charges.

“A grand jury has returned a true bill today on a two-count criminal indictment of Devyani Khobragade,” Bharara’s office said in an announcement Friday.

An arrest warrant also was issued after the indictment, according to Jerika Richardson spokesperson for the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.

Khobragade faces one count of visa fraud and one count of making false statements for allegedly lying on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, according to the indictment filed in a Manhattan federal court Friday.

Khobragade, who according to the US had limited consular immunity, was reassigned by India to a UN job after her arrest.

But the US asked her to return to India Jan 9 after New Delhi refused to waive her then newly-acquired full diplomatic immunity.

Her lawyer Daniel Arshack declined comment after the fresh indictment which effectively returns the case to where it was before Wednesday’s dismissal.

“The government of India will respond in due course,” he said in a statement. US District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled Wednesday that Khobragade, India’s former deputy consul-general in New York, had diplomatic immunity in her new job at the UN Jan 9 and could not be prosecuted.

A spokesman for Bharara’s office, however, said the ruling did not bar prosecutors from seeking a new indictment based on the same charges, now that she has left the country and no longer enjoys diplomatic immunity.

Arshack had then commented that re-indicting his client “might be viewed as an aggressive act and one that (prosecutors) would be ill-advised to pursue”.

Contrary to an impression that it is Bharara’s office that has been pushing the case against Khobragade unmindful of its diplomatic fallout, the State Department Friday confirmed that it had also opposed dropping of charges against the Indian diplomat.

In the brief opposing the motion to dismiss the case against Khobragade, “the US government” took the position “that she had full immunity only for a very brief period…between the time she was accredited to UN mission and the time she left the country”, State Department spokesperson told reporters.

That’s why State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki had expressed “surprise” over the dismissal of the case against Khobragade.

“We were surprised because we learned about this when the ruling was released on Wednesday”, and also because the court disagreed with the State Department’s position about her immunity.

The flap over the Khobragade affair had led to the postponement of India-US energy dialogue and the first visit by new US assistant secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal, who has just returned from a fence mending trip to India.

How the re-indictment of Khobragade and the threat of her arrest in case of her return would affect what President Brack Obama has famously described as “the defining partnership of the 21st century” is yet to be seen.

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