US Attorney Preet Bharara Opposed to Hearing Extension for Khobragade

LETTER by USA as to Devyani Khobragade addressed to Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn from Amanda Kramer

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Washington, DC – There was opposition expressed by the US Attorney Preet Bharara, who is in charge of the ongoing controversial case after the arrest and alleged mistreatment of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat whose lawyer on Monday sought an extension of the indictment hearing scheduled forJanuary 13 in the visa fraud and false statement case, which has strained US-India ties.

Khobragade’s lawyer, in a letter to the court on Monday, requested an extension of the deadline by 30 days to February 12, by which time the US government must file an indictment or commence a preliminary hearing.

In a reply letter addressed to Judge Sarah Netburn on Monday, Bharara said, “The Government is not seeking an extension of the deadline for indictment and therefore there is no motion for the Court to decide. At any rate, as the Court knows, the timing under which the Government seeks an indictment is in the discretion of the Government, and the defendant cannot alter that.”

Commenting on Khobragade’s request, “for a one month adjournment of the January 13, 2014 preliminary hearing date in order to facilitate the plea discussions that have been ongoing between this Office and the defendant,” the US Attorney Bharara wrote, “While we remain open to continuing these plea discussions as the case proceeds, the discussions are simply not at a stage that merits a continuance of the preliminary hearing. Moreover, the plea discussions can continue following indictment of the case.”

On the ongoing plea discussions, Bharara added, “We have participated in hours of discussion in the hope of negotiating a plea that could be entered in Court before January 13. Indeed, as recently as Saturday, January 5, the Government outlined reasonable parameters for a plea that could resolve the case, to which the defendant has not responded.”

On December 12, 2013, Devyani Khobragade, the Deputy Consul General of India in New York, was arrested and allegedly treated like a hardened criminal by making her undergo a strip search and cavity search. She was arrested in the city on suspicion of visa fraud and making false statements, after being accused of paying her Indian maid, Sangeeta Richard, below the US minimum wage.

The US State Department on Monday afternoon expressed hope of arriving at a diplomatic resolution of the issue, which has resulted in tension in the India-US relationship.

Replying to journalists’ questions at the daily press briefing, Marie Harf, the State Department Deputy Spokesperson said, “We want it to be resolved as soon as possible. Certainly, that’s our goal, but we’re only part of this process.”

Drawing a line of demarcation between two processes of the Department of Justice and the State Department, Harf said, “We’re the diplomatic part that focuses on the relationship and all the issues we work together on. There is a separate judicial and legal process that is working its way through right now.”

“There is a reason we have these processes, and hopefully that will work itself out soon as well, but I don’t want to get ahead of that process, and certainly don’t want to speak for it,” she added.

Asked to comment on media reports about email communications between the State Department and Indian diplomats, in which the US had initially agreed to deport Khobragade’s maid Sangeeta Richard to India, Harf said, “I’m aware of those press reports. As I’ve also said repeatedly, the State Department’s been in regular contact with the government of India on this issue. We don’t have further comment for you on diplomatic communications, but suffice to say what we’re focused on now is moving this forward, getting some resolution and focusing on the relationship.”

Earlier, Indian media reported that Vikram Doraiswami, the Joint Secretary (Americas), conveyed to US Ambassador Nancy Powell when she met him at South Block in New Delhi, that it cannot be “business as usual” between the two sides untl the issue is resolved.

India has sought a US apology and withdrawal of charges against Khobragade. US Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone call to Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon expressed “regret” over the incident and the US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell later echoed his sentiments during a New Year address.

Secretary Kerry, however, failed to call on his Indian counterpart Foreign Minister Salman Khursheed, who made it clear in the Indian Parliament that it was his duty to restore the diplomat’s dignity.

“In terms of giving a strong, unambiguous, direct message to the United States of America: whatever I believe we were supposed to do, we did immediately,” Khursheed told the Indian Parliament.

Harf on Monday repeated the US position that this was an isolated incident, saying, “As I’ve said, many, many times throughout this whole ordeal, that we don’t want this to define our relationship going forward and don’t think that it will.”

“If you look throughout the region, if you look at Afghanistan, if you look at energy issues, economic issues, we have a whole host of things we work together on,” said Harf, adding, “And those are very important and shouldn’t be derailed by this incident. And that’s why, again, we are putting the process forward. We’re setting that aside.”

The State Department Deputy Spokesperson told journalists that the US is “letting it (the case) run its course” and was focused on “where to go from here because, as we’ve always said, the relationship with India is incredibly important.” “It’s vital, and that’s what we’re focused on,” Harf said.

Going to great lengths to explain the importance of the bilateral relationship, Harf said, “We say the same thing privately that we say publicly: that there’s a lot of work we have to do.” “There’s a lot of business we have to get done together, a lot of issues we work very closely on economically, diplomatically, and that’s what’s important to us and that’s what’s important to do moving forward, and I have no reason to think that that won’t be the case.” “The US wants this to be resolved as soon as possible,” she said.

However, the US was still in the process of reviewing the paper work with regard to the transfer of Khobragade to India’s permanent mission to the UN, which would give her full diplomatic immunity.

“We’ve received the request for change and accreditation, but the process is ongoing, and no official decision has been made yet to do that. “So there is no change in her status as of this point. Hopefully we can get a resolution to it,” she added.

A State Department Spokesperson last week told India America Today, “We received the paperwork from the United Nations on Friday, December 20. It is under review.”

Asked to comment when the review might be completed and if there were any precedents about denial in such cases, the State Department Spokesperson said, “We cannot predict when that review will be complete. We cannot compare this to previous requests as each request is evaluated on its own merits.”

The move is seen to be an attempt to ensure that Khobragade would receive full diplomatic immunity from prosecution as she will be accredited to the UN, not the US. The move could also be an opening for the US to drop charges against Khobragade. India has demanded an unconditional apology and dropping of all charges against the diplomat.

After presenting his credentials to the Office of Chief of Protocol, S. Jaishankar, the new Indian Ambassador to the US, recently met Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Under Secretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy of the State Department. According to sources, the Indian Ambassador at his meetings with State Department officials raised the issue of the withdrawal of charges against Khobragade.

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