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April 21, 2014

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Indian diplomat’s father says she is vindicated

NEW DELHI — An Indian envoy whose arrest and strip search in New York City caused a diplomatic furor was heading home Friday after being indicted by a federal grand jury in Manhattan and then ordered to leave the country.

The case has caused a serious rift between the United States and India, which described Devyani Khobragade's treatment as outrageous and heavy-handed. She had been facing charges of underpaying her Indian-born housekeeper and lying about it on a visa form.

Her departure from the U.S. could signal a cooling of tensions and give both countries a way to claim victory, although her father said in a televised news conference Friday that the case was a triumph for India.

"Devyani today left the U.S. with full diplomatic immunity , vindicating the stand that whatever dispute being raised in the U.S. is a prerogative of sovereign country, India, and only can be adjudicated by Indian courts," said her father, Uttam Khobragade, a retired bureaucrat.

The issue of immunity is key to the case, which erupted a month ago when Devyani Khobragade (dayv-YAHN'-ee KOH'-bruh-gah-day), a 39-year-old mother of two, was arrested. She was strip-searched and kept in a cell with other criminal defendants before being released on $250,000 bail.

In recent weeks, federal officials have said that Khobragade's immunity is limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. But on Thursday, a U.S. government official in Washington said the U.S. had accepted India's request to accredit her to the United Nations, which confers broader immunity.

It would be almost unprecedented for the U.S. to deny such a request unless the diplomat was a national security risk.

The United States then asked the government of India to waive the newly granted immunity so they could prosecute her, but the Indians refused. The U.S. then "requested her departure" from the country, said one American government official, who wasn't authorized to speak about the case publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Authorities say Khobragade claimed to pay her Indian maid $4,500 per month but gave her far less than the U.S. minimum wage. The indictment said Khobragade had made multiple false representations to U.S. authorities, or caused them to be made, to obtain a visa for a personal domestic worker. She planned to bring the worker to the United States in September 2012 when she worked at the Consulate General of India in New York, according to the indictment.

Khobragade, who served as India's deputy consul general in New York, has maintained her innocence.

Khobragade's lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said his client was "pleased to be returning to her country."

"Her head is held high," he said. "She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known."

The case has caused an outcry in India, where officials say Khobragade is the victim and was being blackmailed by her maid.

The government in New Delhi has unleashed a steady stream of retaliatory measures. Some of the moves, such as preventing the American Center in New Delhi from screening movies, are seen as little more than needling the U.S. But other actions have raised some alarm, including the removal of concrete traffic barriers around the U.S. Embassy and revoking diplomats' ID cards.

The maid, Sangeeta Richard, said in her first public statements on Thursday that she had decided to come to the U.S. to work for a few years to support her family and then return to India.

"I never thought that things would get so bad here, that I would work so much that I did not have time to sleep or eat or have time to myself," she said in a statement released by the anti-trafficking group Safe Horizon.

She said she tried to return to India because of how she'd been treated but her request was denied.

"I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did — you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you," said Richard, who has been vilified in India and accused of blackmailing her employer.

In a letter to the judge on Thursday, prosecutors said there was no need for an arraignment because Khobragade had "very recently" been given diplomatic immunity status.

The charges will remain pending until she can be brought to court to face them, through a waiver of immunity or her return to the U.S. without immunity status, the letter from the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.

AP writers Larry Neumeister in New York and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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