Relief for Khobragade

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Case can end here, but will the US agree to it?

The dismissal of visa fraud charges against Ms Devyani Khobragade by a US court brings important, though limited, relief to the beleaguered Indian Foreign Service officer. The prosecutors still have the option of filing fresh charges against her and they probably will, given that Mr Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York handling this case, has a penchant for chasing high-profile targets. That doing so may seem unnecessarily “aggressive”, as Ms Khobragade's lawyer has pointed out, especially since the case has already snowballed into a huge diplomatic spat, straining ties between India and the US, is unlikely to deter Mr Bharara. Ideally, though, it is at this point that the matter should have ended as concerns of both parties have been reasonably addressed. From India's point of view, Ms Khobragade has been exonerated while US authorities can take comfort from the fact that the law of their land has taken its course. On Wednesday, the District Court ruled that the US Government could not proceed against Ms Khobragade as she was indicted by a grand jury in New York on January 9 — a day after she was appointed India's counsellor to its Permanent Mission to the United Nation. That appointment gave her full diplomatic immunity, thereby, nullifying the indictment that was obtained at a time when she was immune from the jurisdiction of the court. However, it must be clarified that Ms Khobragade has no diplomatic immunity now, which clears the way for the legitimate filing of fresh charges. Equally importantly, Wednesday's verdict also does not certify if she had diplomatic immunity at the time of her controversial arrest on December 12, 2013. This has always been a bone of contention —with US and Indian authorities differing over the limits of the diplomatic coverage Ms Khobragade enjoyed as a consular official — and it still remains unresolved.

Some may argue that letting the case rest at this point does not exonerate Ms Khobragade, and that the verdict is an example of using the small print in the rule book to one's advantage. Even if that were the case, few will disagree that the US's argument against her stands essentially on technicalities and that too amidst much legal ambivalence. For instance, despite the brouhaha over her paying less than minimum wage to her domestic help, Ms Khobragade was not charged with violating US labour laws. Instead, she was indicted for providing false information on her visa application that allowed her to take the domestic help from India to the US. And while it may be true that she did not pay the sum she had promised in her visa application, one cannot disregard the fact that Ms Khobragade also had a separate salary agreement with her domestic help and the wages were paid in accordance with that contract. Finally, legalities apart, the dispute must also be contextualised against the backdrop of pre-established norms and processes in such cases. None of this, of course, takes away from the fact that Ms Khobragade has managed only a narrow escape and even that has come at a high cost for the country. Instead of gloating over a victory in this case, New Delhi must introspect and ensure that our diplomats don’t get trapped in similar positions in the future.

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