NEW YORK : A federal judge Wednesday rejected Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s request to delay proceedings in a visa fraud case that has sparked a diplomatic rift between the United States and India.
In an order that could complicate ongoing efforts to resolve the case, Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn in Manhattan refused to extend the January 13 deadline by which a preliminary hearing must be held or an indictment filed in the case.
Khobragade, who was deputy consul-general in New York, was arrested on 12 December and charged with one count of visa fraud and one count of making false statements about how much she paid her housekeeper. She was handcuffed and strip-searched before being bailed out.
Judge Netburn said adjournment of the date will not grant her the “relief she seeks” regarding plea negotiations between her and the government to resolve the visa fraud case.
An indictment or information charging the defendant with the commission of an offence must be filed within 30 days of the date of the defendant’s arrest or service of a summons in connection with such charges, she said in her order. Any adjournment of the preliminary hearing date will not have any impact on the filing of the indictment.
“The defendant has requested only that the preliminary date be adjourned for 30 days for good cause shown... Because a modification of the hearing date will not itself alter the time period for the filing of an indictment or information, the defendant’s concerns regarding the pressures of an impending indictment on plea negotiations will not grant her the relief she seeks.”
“Therefore, good cause has not been demonstrated, and the defendant’s request for an adjournment of the preliminary hearing date is Denied,” Netburn said in her three-page order issued late Wednesday.
She said since Khobragade was arrested on December 12, 2013, she “must be indicted (or an information by the government must be filed against her)” by January 13.
“Therefore, an extension of the preliminary hearing date ...will not relieve the pressure identified by the defendant. Moreover, the defendant cannot extend Speedy Trial time limits merely by filing a waiver.”
Khobragade’s lawyer Daniel Arshack said he and his client are considering their options.
Preet Bharara, the India-born US Attorney in Manhattan, whose office is handling the case, opposed the delay, arguing that plea discussions can continue following indictment in the case.
A spokeswoman for Bharara’s office did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Since Khobragade’s arrest, India transferred her to the United Nations in the same city, a move that would give her full diplomatic status. But so far the US State Department has said the application was still in process.
Wednesday’s order means the indictment against Khobragade will now have to filed before or on January 13. Her lawyer Arshack had sought postponement of the preliminary hearing date and extension of the indictment deadline by 30 days “to and including February 12, 2014”.
Khobragade’s lawyer had said that the extension is being sought in order to facilitate the plea discussions that have been ongoing between his office and Khobragade. Netburn ruled that “an adjournment of the preliminary hearing date will not grant the defendant the relief she (Khobragade) seeks.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stressed the importance of relations with India and said the United States “endeavors to always be in compliance with local laws and regulations.” She was responding to a series of measures taken by the Indian government that have sharply curtained some of privileges enjoyed by US diplomats.
Meanwhile, in a lead editorial, The Washington Post denounced India’s countermeasures, says difficulties were being created for US diplomats.
The Paper said, “The Indian government has compounded tensions with high-decibel rhetoric and a vindictive campaign against US diplomats in New Delhi. Its bullying measures have ranged from the petty - withdrawing the US Embassy’s permit to import alcohol - to the irresponsible - removing security barricades from the street in front of the facility. Employees of embassy officials are being investigated for alleged offenses including working at American schools without proper paperwork.
“Indian officials describe this harassment as a reciprocal response to the arrest of Ms. Khobragade, but it is not.”
Psaki, the State Department spokesperson, said “We are continuing our conversations with the Indian Government ... with the importance of the broad strategic US-India partnership firmly in mind.”
India had already curtailed privileges offered to US diplomats to bring them in line with the treatment of Indian envoys to the United States. Since December, the US ambassador in Delhi can be subjected to airport frisking and most consular staff have reduced levels of immunity.
Concrete barriers were removed from a road near the US embassy last month, apparently in retaliation for the loss of a parking spot for the Indian ambassador in Washington.
India is also preparing to take steps against the embassy school, which it suspects may be employing some staff in violation of visa requirements, a government source said.
Despite an overall improvement in ties since the end of the Cold War, the Khobragade dispute has brought into the open the lingering wariness between the two countries. Over the past year, there has been increasing friction over trade, intellectual property rights and visas for Indian IT workers.
There is also a legacy of mistrust, with some Indian officials whose professional life began when India was a close partner of the Soviet Union still not convinced Washington is a reliable ally.