Indian diplomat in servant row to leave US: prosecutor

NEW YORK (AFP) - An Indian diplomat whose arrest in New York sparked an intense row is expected to leave the United States on Thursday night as she was hit with charges over treatment of her servant, officials said.

After weeks of escalating tensions between the usually friendly countries, the United States and India reached an agreement in which diplomat Devyani Khobragade left the country but still faces charges if she returns.

Mr Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, informed a judge that a grand jury had filed two counts of visa fraud and making false statements against Khobragade but said there would be no need to arraign her before a court due to her absence.

"We understand that the defendant was very recently accorded diplomatic immunity status and that she departed the United States today," Mr Bharara, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, told the judge.

Mr Bharara's office later clarified that Khobragade was leaving the US as part of an agreement but that she had not yet departed by Thursday afternoon.

A US government official said the US agreed to Indian requests to switch the accreditation of Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York, to the United Nations to give her greater immunity.

UN accreditation is "typically only denied when there's a national security risk. So that's not obviously the case here," the official said.

Khobragade's arrest on December 12 spurred outrage in India, especially when it was revealed she was strip-searched. The incident sent once warming relations between the world's two largest democracies into freefall.

India said that the arrest breached norms and retaliated by removing security barriers outside the US embassy first placed after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

India also cut back perks for US diplomats, and US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz postponed a visit due next week to India.

In an indictment, the grand jury said Khobragade had contracted to pay her servant 30,000 rupees (S$614) a month - in line with wages in India, but well below the US minimum wage.

The indictment said Khobragade then drafted a fake contract, which the servant presented in her visa interview at the US embassy in New Delhi.

On the visa form, Khobragade allegedly stated she would guarantee the servant's working conditions, including providing the minimum wage and restricting her work to 40 hours a week.

In the alleged fake contract, Khobragade listed a monthly pay of US$4,500 (S$5,722).

The indictment said that figure "did not match any actual income" - not that of the servant or that of Khobragade, after some media reports indicated prosecutors may have mistakenly looked at the salary of the diplomat instead of the servant.

"Knowing that if the US 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 US authorities," the indictment said.

The indictment also accused Khobragade of forcing the servant to work for illegally long hours, initially seven days a week, before she was given off part of Sunday.

Khobragade did not give the servant any days off for holidays, vacation or illness, telling her not to fall sick because of the cost of seeing a doctor, the indictment said.

The indictment also accused Khobragade of intimidation, saying that the diplomat and her family called the servant's husband in India and tried to pressure the servant against filing complaints.

US prosecutors said they extended courtesies to Khobragade but that a strip search - unthinkable in India against an educated woman - was standard practice for anyone taken into custody.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has voiced regret over Khobragade's treatment, but India vowed to take counter-measures until it restored the "dignity" of the diplomat.

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