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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Diplomat Accused of Abusing Maid Indicted

MANHATTAN (CN) - The Indian diplomat whose arrest and strip search in New York strained relations between the United States and India was federally charged today with visa fraud and making false statements - and making her victim work 100 hours a week at $1.42 an hour.

In the two-count criminal indictment, the U.S. attorney charged Devyani Khobragade with making "multiple false representations" to U.S. authorities to get a visa for a personal domestic worker - "the Victim" - whom she brought with her in September 2012 when Khobragade went to work for India's Consulate General.

"Khobragade did not want to pay the Victim the required wages under U.S. law or provide the Victim with other protections against exploitative work conditions mandated by U.S. law (and widely publicized to foreign diplomats and government officials)," according to the 20-page indictment, filed with 67 pages of exhibits. It continues: "Knowing that if the U.S. authorities were told the truth about the actual terms of her employment agreement with the Victim, Khobragade would not have been able to obtain a visa for the Victim, Khobragade decided to make false statements to the U.S. authorities."

Prosecutors say Khobragade, 39, was paying her maid $1.42 per hour or less while having the woman working up to 100 hours per week without a day off.

The maid was allegedly told that she would work less than 40 hours a week with Sundays off at a rate of roughly $573 per month.

Khobragade allegedly created a fraudulent visa application stating that the maid would be paid $4,500 per month and a fake employment contract for the U.S. embassy holidays, sick days and vacation days, the indictment states.

The actual contract made weeks later removed these protections, prosecutors say.

After seven months, the maid fled from Khobragade's home in June 2013, the indictment states.

The charges against Khobragade are not unusual for diplomats posted to the United States. Numerous diplomats, particularly from Middle Eastern countries, have been sued civilly in U.S. courts by servants who accused the diplomats of holding them in domestic servitude and peonage, through threats and coercion. The abuse typically begins with confiscation of the victim's passport.

Prosecutors claims Khobragade did just that: "After Khobragade rejected all of the Victim's requests to end her employment with Khobragade, have her personal passport returned, and return to her family in India, and having no power or financial ability to return home to India without Khobragade's assistance, yet unwilling to continue working under the grueling conditions of her employment, on or about June 22, 2013, the Victim left the Khobragade U.S. residence and did not return. The Victim ultimately turned to a nonprofit organization that supports human trafficking victims for assistance," according to the indictment.

After the victim fled, Khobragade and an unnamed relative made "escalating efforts" to "silence and intimidate the victim and her family and lie to Indian authorities and courts," the indictment states. This lasted from July through November 2013, according to the indictment.

For instance, Khobragade filed a First Information Report (FIR) in India in July 2013, after which "an arrest warrant was issued in India charging the Victim with extortion, cheating, and participating in a conspiracy. In the FIR, which is described more fully below, Khobragade acknowledged that the agreed-upon salary for the Victim was 30,000 rupees per month, not the salary based on an hourly wage of $9.75 as represented to the U.S. Embassy at the time of the visa application. The FIR is attached as Exhibit G," prosecutors said in the U.S. indictment.

When she was arrested on Dec. 12 in New York, Khobragade was subjected to a strip search in prison to stoked diplomatic controversy and allegations her treatment violated the Vienna Conventions.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's letter to U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, also filed on Thursday, shows that the State Department is still trying to smooth out the fallout.

Khobragade "was very recently accorded diplomatic immunity status" and mistakenly reported that "she departed the United States today," Bharara wrote.

His spokesman James Margolin later explained that the U.S. Attorney's office "had been advised by the State Department that, pursuant to their request, Devyani Khobragade was to have left the United States this afternoon."

The office later learned that this was not the case, Margolin said.

Referring to the mix-up, Khobragade's lawyer Dan Arshack blasted what he called the prosecution's "false statement" that his client left the United States as "emblematic of the series of blunders which has contributed to the false charges brought against her."

"Although the domestic came to work here on a short term contact which required her to return to India at the end of her employment as a result of the false claims and shoddy investigation, she and her family now enjoy permanent residency in the United States," Arshack said in an email. "The investigators in this case made serious errors as result of not fully investigating the facts."

The indictment describes the work schedule to which Khobragade allegedly subjected the victim: "the Victim's work hours typically began at approximately 6:30 a.m. and ended between 9:30 p.m. and midnight, six days per week, plus approximately 4 hours on Sundays (during the first two months, as described below, the Victim worked a full day on Sundays). In other words, the Victim was required to work approximately 94 to 109 hours per week, with limited breaks for meals or personal calls.

Khobragade's arrest set off outrage and protests in India, in the government and on the streets. The government removed protection for the U.S. Embassy, and has taken pettier steps in retaliation, such as limiting visitors and alcohol in U.S. diplomatic quarters.

U.S. officials said Khobragade, 39, was treated like any other arrestee.

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