US court dismisses Devyani Khobragade’s indictment in visa fraud case

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In a major relief to Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, a US court on Wednesday granted her motion to dismiss her indictment on visa fraud charges.

The US judge ruled that Khobragade had full diplomatic immunity when the charge was returned against her on January 9, although prosecutors are not barred from bringing new charges in future.

Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin, meanwhile, said that the government has asked its lawyers to examine the verdict carefully and give their advice accordingly.

In her 14-page order, District Judge Shira Scheindlin said that “it is undisputed” that Khobragade acquired full diplomatic immunity at 5:47 pm on January 08 after the US State Department approved her accreditation as a counsellor to India’s mission to the United Nations.

While the indictment was returned on January 09, Khobragade had the immunity till she departed from the US for India on the evening of January 09 and so the prosecutors cannot proceed with the current indictment.

“Khobragade’s motion to dismiss the indictment on the ground of diplomatic immunity is granted. Khobragade’s conditions of bail are terminated, and her bond is exonerated. It is ordered that any open arrest warrants based on this indictment must be vacated,” Scheindlin said in her 14-page order, capping months of unprecedented diplomatic tensions between the US and India.

“On January 09, immediately following the return of the indictment, Khobragade appeared before the court through counsel and moved to dismiss the case. Because the court lacked jurisdiction over her at that time, and at the time the indictment was returned, the motion must be granted,” the judge said ordering that the motion and the case be closed.

US Attorney Preet Bharara’s office had argued that Khobragade, 39, was not immune from her December 12 arrest on charges of visa fraud and making false statements about the visa application of her domestic help Sangeeta Richard.

Bharara had said that the indictment should not be dismissed since Khobragade did not employ her domestic worker Richard in her capacity as Deputy Consul General and so does not enjoy immunity from prosecution for the “crimes” for which she was arrested in December.

Reacting to the order, Bharara’s office said the judge has not barred them from going ahead with a new indictment against Khobragade, who now no longer enjoys diplomatic immunity in the US following her departure to India, and will “proceed accordingly” with any fresh indictment.

Scheindlin said that “even if Khobragade had no immunity at the time of her arrest and has none now, her acquisition of immunity during the pendency of proceedings mandates dismissal.” She ruled that the government “may not proceed on an indictment obtained when Khobragade was immune from the jurisdiction of the court”.

“The court has no occasion to decide whether the acts charged in the Indictment constitute ‘official acts’ that would be protected by residual immunity. However, if the acts charged in the Indictment were not ‘performed in the exercise of official functions,’ then there is currently no bar to a new indictment against Khobragade,” the judge’s order said.