NEW DELHI/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade whose arrest and strip search caused a major rift in U.S.-Indian ties was flying home on Friday after a deal in which she was indicted for visa fraud and underpaying her nanny but allowed to leave because of diplomatic immunity.
Khobragade, who was deputy consul-general in New York, was arrested on December 12 and indicted on Thursday before being effectively expelled. Her arrest set off protests in India amid disclosures that she was handcuffed and strip-searched.
The month-long dispute has soured the broader U.S.-India bilateral relationship, leading to sanctions against American diplomats in New Delhi and the postponement of visits to India by senior U.S. officials and another by a U.S. business delegation.
It was not immediately clear whether the return of Khobragade would be enough to dispel the bad feeling that has built up between New Delhi and Washington. With national elections due in India by May, political parties have seized on the case and labelled it an attack on national sovereignty.
“We’ll focus on one day at a time, today is the day we focus on getting Devyani back,” said foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.
While both New Delhi and Washington stressed the importance of their bilateral relationship during the crisis, it has taken weeks of complex wrangling to find a workable solution both sides could live with.
Akbaruddin said Khobragade left after being granted full diplomatic immunity and was being transferred to a post in New Delhi. Her father said she was expected to arrive in the capital late in the evening.
Uttam Khobragade said his daughter rejected an offer of a plea bargain to resolve the dispute and be allowed to stay in the United States. Her children and husband, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin, will soon follow her to India, he said.
If the diplomat had accepted the plea bargain, the charges against her would have been dropped but she decided against it, he said.
“Devyani said, this amounts to compromising the sovereignty of the country,” Uttam Khobragade said, noting that the dispute with the housekeeper was being dealt with by Indian courts.
Documents and statements from U.S. officials reveal a dizzying 24 hours in which the State Department granted Khobragade diplomatic immunity, unsuccessfully asked India to waive that immunity and ordered her to leave the country immediately.
According to documents provided by Khobragade’s lawyer Daniel Arshack, the U.S. mission sent a letter to Khobragade on Wednesday granting her diplomatic status as of 5.47 p.m. (2147 GMT) that day.
On Thursday, the Indian mission to the United Nations rejected the State Department’s request that her immunity be waived. Then in a diplomatic note, the U.S. mission requested Khobragade’s immediate departure from the United States and said it would take steps to prevent her from obtaining a visa in the future. It also said Khobragade, 39, risked arrest if she tried to return.
“Upon her departure a warrant may be issued for her arrest and should she seek to enter the United States she could be arrested,” the note said.
There was no immediate comment from the Indian Embassy in Washington or its mission to the United Nations.
The foreign ministry in New Delhi said in a statement: “At the time of her departure for India, Counsellor Khobragade reiterated her innocence on charges filed against her.
“She also affirmed her determination to ensure that the episode would not leave a lasting impact on her family, in particular, her children, who are still in the United States.”
India was incensed by the treatment of Khobragade and has curtailed privileges offered to U.S. diplomats in New Delhi. On Wednesday it ordered the U.S. Embassy to close a club for expatriate Americans there.
Also on Wednesday, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz postponed a visit to India scheduled for next week. This move came days after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal delayed her first visit to the country to avoid the trip becoming embroiled in the dispute.
The arresting authority, the U.S. Marshals Service, characterized the strip search as a routine procedure imposed on any new arrestee.
India was also angered that the United States took it upon itself to fly the nanny’s family out of India. The prosecuting attorney, Preet Bharara of Manhattan, an ethnic Indian, said attempts were made in India to “silence” the nanny, Sangeeta Richard, and compel her to return home.
Safe Horizon, a non-government group that campaigns for victims of abuse, said that although Richard’s legal presence in the United States was tied to her employment, she had been granted temporary permission to remain while she cooperates with law enforcement as a victim of human trafficking.
“I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did - you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you,” Richard said in a Safe Horizon statement.
The group said Richard was likely to apply for a special “T-1” visa reserved for trafficking victims. Such a visa would be valid for up to four years and allow her to work in the United States. It can also lead to lawful permanent residence.
Khobragade’s departure would remove the focus of current friction between New Delhi and Washington, but it is unclear how long it will take the anger to subside. The continued presence of Richard in the United States could prove an irritant.
The case has exposed underlying problems in a bilateral relationship that has failed to live up to its billing by President Barack Obama in 2010 as “a defining partnership for the 21st Century.”
Critics accuse Obama of failing to pay sufficient attention to ties with a country viewed as a key strategic counterbalance to China and as an engine to boost the U.S. economy, while American hopes of building a more robust business relationship with India have run into bureaucratic hurdles.
Indian sourcing rules for retail, information technology, medicine and clean energy products are contentious and U.S. firms complain about “unfair” imports from India of everything from shrimp to steel pipes. In June, more than 170 U.S. lawmakers signed a letter to Obama about Indian policies they said threatened U.S. jobs.
Speaking at a seminar on Thursday, Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business Council blamed “bumbling on both sides” for the Khobragade affair.
“We really need now to be building trust and taking an introspective look at whether we really mean what we say when we talk about strategic partnership and how do we get there.” (Reporting by Nate Raymond, Joseph Ax and Chris Francescani in New York, David Brunnstrom in Washington, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations and Frank Jack Daniel in New Delhi; Editing by Clive McKeef, Eric Walsh and Raju Gopalakrishnan)