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Khobragade victim of local ambition?

There are speculations that the US attorney is looking for 'scalps' as a springboard to public office

BS Reporter  |  New Delhi 

India on Friday reacted with shock and rage at the treatment meted to Devyani Khobragade, deputy consul general at the Consulate General of India in New York. Khobragade was arrested, allegedly on charges of visa fraud and making a false statement as she was dropping her children to school. She was later released on a bond of $250,000.

Nancy Powell, US Ambassador to India, was summoned to South Block for an explanation. The government said the treatment to Khobragade was “absolutely unacceptable”.

Khobragade was serving as acting consul general. If convicted, she could be imprisoned for up to 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false statement.

Syed Akbaruddin, spokesperson for the Ministry of external affairs, said Khobragade was entitled to diplomatic immunity and the courtesies extended to diplomats by the country she was serving in. “We have forcefully told the US Embassy this treatment to one of our diplomats in unacceptable,” he said. “If there are issues of an illegal nature, these will be resolved separately; at this stage, I will not be in a position to go into the legal issues, if there are any, adding the basic courtesies nations extended to each other’s diplomats had to be followed. He said Khobragade’s arrest had nothing to do with her diplomatic duties.

The case against Khobragade was she took a babysitter/housekeeper with her to the US and told the US immigration department that the help would be paid the minimum wage in that country---$4,500 a month. However, the actual payment was only $530 a month. According to the office of US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, two sets of contracts were signed between Khobragade and her housekeeper, one offering her the minimum wage and another citing the real wage she would be paid. According to Bharara, the help was instructed not to say anything about the second contract during her visa interview.

The MEA stated “We were informed that Khobragade, was taken into custody by law enforcement authorities in New York in the morning of December 12, while dropping her daughter to school. Khobragade was released that same evening. Action was apparently taken on the basis of allegations raised by the officer’s former India-based domestic assistant, Sangeeta Richard, who has been absconding since June this year. In this context, the Delhi High Court had issued an-interim injunction in September to restrain Richard from instituting any actions or proceedings against Khobragade outside India on the terms or conditions of her employment.

The US Government had subsequently been requested to locate Richard and facilitate the service of an arrest warrant, issued by the Metropolitan Magistrate of the South District Court in New Delhi under sections 387, 420 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code.

The Embassy of India in Washington DC had immediately conveyed its strong concern to the US government over the action against Khobragade. The US side has been urged to resolve the matter with due sensitivity, taking into account the existing court case in India and the diplomatic status of the officer concerned.”

Indian officials say the extremely public nature of Khobragade’s arrest has a lot to do with Bharara’s political ambitions. Calling him the Arvind Kejriwal of New York, a former Indian government official who served in the US, said, “After taking down one state senator, two members of the assembly, a member of the council and many others in two alleged bribery plots; after going after Rajat Gupta and Raj Rajaratnam and putting him away for more than 10 years; and after pursuing the case against IMF (International Monetary Fund) chief Dominique Strauss Kahn (which was dismissed), Bharara was looking for another scalp. Now, he has one—Devyani Khobragade.”

Bharara has denied he intends to run for any office. But The New York Times suggests his style has an uncanny similarity to that of former New York governor Rudy Giuliani, who held the same post in the 80s and used it to hunt down corrupt politicians and as a springboard to public office. In fact, while hearing a case argued by Bharara’s office, one of the judges mocked publicly at the purple prose in a press release issued by Bharara, saying this seemed to be for “tabloid consumption”.

First Published: Sat, December 14 2013. 00:02 IST