New York, Dec 19 (PTI): US prosecutor Preet Bharara, in the thick of a storm over the way Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was arrested, said on Thursday that she was “accorded courtesies” and not handcuffed when she was arrested.
He also vowed to hold those breaking the law accountable ”no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are.”
A 1999 batch IFS officer, Khobragade, India's Deputy Consul General in New York, was arrested on December 12 by the State Department's diplomatic security bureau, and then handed over to the US Marshals Service (USMS). Devyani has said she was handcuffed and then strip searched.
In a lengthy and unusual explanation, Bharara said there has been “misinformation and factual inaccuracy” in the reporting on the Khobragade case which is “creating an inflammatory atmosphere.”
Full statement on US justice department site
“There has been much misinformation and factual inaccuracy in the reporting on the charges against Devyani Khobragade. It is important to correct these inaccuracies because they are misleading people and creating an inflammatory atmosphere on an unfounded basis,” he said.
“Although I am quite limited in my role as a prosecutor in what I can say, which in many ways constrains my ability here to explain the case to the extent I would like, I can nevertheless make sure the public record is clearer than it has been thus far,” Bharara said.
Bharara, Manhattan's top federal prosecutor, maintained that Khobragade evaded US laws designed to protect the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers from exploitation.
“This Office's sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law – no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are,” he said.
He said legal attempts had begun in India against the victim, who had worked as a domestic help for Khobragade, and attempts were being made to “silence” her.
He said the domestic help's family was brought to the United States to ensure the safety of victims, witnesses and their families, while cases are pending.
He said that she was charged based on conduct as is alleged in the court complaint, that “shows she clearly tried to evade US law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers.”
Khobragade was taken into custody as she was dropping her daughter to school before being released on a USD 250,000 bond after pleading not guilty in court.
Accusing Khobragade of fraud, he said: “Not only did she try to evade the law, but as further alleged, she caused the victim and her spouse to attest to false documents and be a part of her scheme to lie to US government officials.”
“So it is alleged not merely that she sought to evade the law, but that she affirmatively created false documents and went ahead with lying to the US government about what she was doing.”
One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country, he said.
“One wonders even more pointedly whether any government would not take action regarding that alleged conduct where the purpose of the scheme was to unfairly treat a domestic worker in ways that violate the law.”
“And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?”
Bharara, who has drawn flak over the treatment meted out to Khobragade while she was being arrested, said Khobragade was “accorded courtesies well beyond what other defendants, most of whom are American citizens, are accorded.”
“She was not, as has been incorrectly reported, arrested in front of her children. The agents arrested her in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained.”
“In fact, the arresting officers did not even seize her phone as they normally would have. Instead, they offered her the opportunity to make numerous calls to arrange personal matters and contact whomever she needed, including allowing her to arrange for child care.”
He said the entire process lasted approximately two hours and since it was cold outside, the agents let her make those calls from their car and “even brought her coffee and offered to get her food.”
He acknowledged that Khobragade was “fully searched” by a female Deputy Marshal “in a private setting” when she was brought into the US Marshals' custody, “but this is standard practise for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not, in order to make sure that no prisoner keeps anything on his person that could harm anyone, including himself.
“This is in the interests of everyone's safety,” he said.
He said his office is in charge of prosecution, not the arrest or custody of a defendant and so questions regarding Khobragade’s arrest by State Department agents “may be better referred to other agencies.
“I will address these issues based on the facts as I understand them,” he said.
Bharara added that as the alleged conduct of Khobragade makes clear, “there can be no plausible claim that this case was somehow unexpected or an injustice.”
He said while the law is clearly set forth on the State Department website, there have been other public cases in the United States involving other countries, and some involving India, where the mistreatment of domestic workers by diplomats or consular officers was charged criminally.
He said the Indian government was aware of the Khobragade case issue and that its diplomats and consular officers were at risk of violating the law.
“The question then may be asked: Is it for US prosecutors to look the other way, ignore the law and the civil rights of victims (again, here an Indian national), or is it the responsibility of the diplomats and consular officers and their government to make sure the law is observed?”
Bharara further said that legal process was started in India against the victim, “attempting to silence her, and attempts were made to compel her to return to India. Further, the victim's family reportedly was confronted in numerous ways regarding this case.”
“Speculation about why the family was brought here has been rampant and incorrect,” he noted.
“Some focus should perhaps be put on why it was necessary to evacuate the family and what actions were taken in India vis-à-vis them.
Bharara said that his Office and the Justice Department are compelled to make sure that victims, witnesses and their families are safe and secure while cases are pending.”
He added that Khobragade is alleged to have treated her domestic help “illegally” in numerous ways by paying her far below minimum wage, despite her child care responsibilities and many household duties, such that it was not a legal wage.
“The victim is also alleged to have worked far more than the 40 hours per week she was contracted to work, and which exceeded the maximum hour limit set forth in the visa application.”
Khobragade, as the complaint charges, created a second contract that was not to be revealed to the US government, that changed the amount to be paid to far below minimum wage, deleted the required language protecting the victim from other forms of exploitation and abuse, and also deleted language that stated that Khobragade agreed to “abide by all Federal, state, and local laws in the US.”
He said these facts in the case are only “in part” and there are other facts regarding the treatment of the victim that were inconsistent with the law or the representations made by Khobragade “that caused this Office and the State Department, to take legal action.”