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Exclusive visa to nanny exposes trust deficit

New Delhi, Dec. 20: The US state department recognised Sangeeta Richard as a victim of trafficking as far back as July at a time New Delhi was asking Washington to help trace her, exposing its deep mistrust of India’s claims that the nanny at the centre of a diplomatic row was an absconder.

The state department awarded Sangeeta a T-1 visa, exclusively given to victims of human trafficking. In December, it handed her husband Philip a T-2 visa and their daughters T-3 visas, which allow family members of trafficked victims to join them in the US.

These new details, confirmed to The Telegraph by multiple Indian and US officials, challenge the perceptions of differences between the state department and US attorney Preet Bharara whose move to arrest diplomat Devyani Khobragade has exploded into a rare public feud.

They instead suggest that the state department headed by John Kerry has implicitly believed Sangeeta, who has accused Devyani of ill-treating and under-paying her, over New Delhi for months, paving the way for the diplomat’s arrest on Bharara’s orders last week.

The decision to award the T visas to the Richards makes it even harder than otherwise for the state department to drop the charges against Devyani as that would also withdraw the sanctuary currently available to the nanny. The US has been trying to nudge India to consider an out-of-court settlement with Sangeeta as a face-saver — an option Delhi has so far rejected.

(US state department spokesperson Jen Psaki said any change in Devyani’s accreditation status that would finalise her transfer to the UN mission would not provide a “clean slate from past charges”. However, Psaki refused to “speculate” whether the transfer could prevent Devyani from being arrested again or enable her to leave the US, Reuters reported late tonight.)

What has upset India — which is demanding that the charges against its diplomat be dropped — the most is the manner in which the state department chose to quietly give Sangeeta legal cover for her stay in the US at a time India was looking for her.

“This was a breakdown of trust and of transparency in a manner that you simply do not expect between friends,” an official here said, before referring to phone calls from secretary of state Kerry and undersecretary for political affairs Wendy Sherman to Indian officials over the past two days in which they expressed “regret” for the manner in which Devyani was treated after her arrest.

“This was behind-your-back stuff, and I’m not sure the trust can be repaired in a day or over a phone call,” the Indian official added.

External affairs minister Salman Khurshid today said he remained hopeful of a speedy resolution, emphasising “conversation”.

“I do believe that so long as we are in conversation and do meaningful conversation, we will get our conversation to a logical conclusion and there is an outcome one way or the other,” Khurshid said.

But it is precisely a breakdown in “meaningful conversation” that brought India and the US to the current dispute, officials now accept, despite over 30 annual platforms at which officials and ministers discuss bilateral ties.

The disconnect was technical to start with, when Devyani and her husband tried to file a missing person complaint on June 24 after returning the previous day from a weekend trip to New Jersey to find that Sangeeta had disappeared. The New York Police Department refused to register the complaint because only relatives can file a missing person complaint against an adult.

India revoked Sangeeta’s official passport. Devyani and her husband then tried to file a criminal complaint against the nanny in a court in New York, accusing her of attempted extortion, after Sangeeta allegedly sought $10,000 at a meeting with the diplomat at an immigration lawyer’s office.

They argued that Devyani still held what looked like an official Indian passport that could be misused.

The plea was rejected by the court on the grounds that the allegations of extortion were weak and that the government passport had already been revoked.

The decision by the Khobragades to approach the New York court raises questions about India’s stand that the issue could be sorted out only under domestic laws.

By then, Sangeeta, through her attorneys at Safe Horizon — a non-profit organisation based in New York — had already applied for a T-1 visa, and, unknown to India at the time, received the visa before the end of the month.

“This is a status given by the state department exclusively for victims of human trafficking to stay in the US and assist in the legal process,” Dana Sussman, Sangeeta’s lawyer at Safe Horizon, said from New York.

Devyani then approached Delhi High Court, and on September 20, obtained an injunction barring Sangeeta from seeking criminal or civil prosecution against her outside India. The external affairs ministry informed the US embassy in Delhi of the injunction on September 21.

Three days later, on September 24, the state department replied through the embassy, disagreeing with India’s version, stating Sangeeta’s visa status and cautioning New Delhi about the possibility of criminal proceedings against Devyani.

India rebutted the US claims and asserted that the high court injunction barred any action against the diplomat on foreign soil but got no response.

In the multiple months between September 24 and December, Indian officials probably mistook the silence for an undeclared or grudging American acceptance of New Delhi’s position. During this time, India appears to have relied on the local legal process rather than on aggressive backroom diplomacy or activation of contingency measures.

In October, Delhi police filed an FIR against Sangeeta and Philip and in November, a Delhi court issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against Sangeeta.

On December 6, India — here in New Delhi and through its embassy in Washington — again communicated with the state department, this time to inform American officials of the non-bailable warrant.

Six days later, Devyani was arrested. By then, the US had issued the T visas and flown out Philip and his daughters.