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Lawyer: Indian housekeeper did not extort money

Thursday - 12/19/2013, 9:28pm  ET

Uttam Khobragade, father of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade who was arrested and strip-searched in New York, gestures as he speaks at a press conference in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. The case has sparked a diplomatic furor between the United States and India, which is incensed over what its officials describe as degrading treatment of India's deputy consul general in New York. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

ASHOK SHARMA
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- The Indian housekeeper worked from morning until late at night, seven days week, for less than $3 an hour taking care of the two children of a diplomat. Unable to get a better deal, she made sure the children were cared for one day and walked out, her lawyer said Thursday.

From that moment on, Sangeeta Richard relied on the kindness of strangers within the Indian community in New York City, and even was looked after at one point by a Sikh temple. She eventually connected with the nonprofit Safe Horizon, which has an anti-trafficking program.

"She was basically just trying to find her way. She was left with the clothes on her back, with very little money," Safe Horizon staff attorney Dana Sussman said.

The housekeeper and Sussman eventually went to the State Department with the allegations. Her employer, Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was arrested last week and accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for Richard. According to prosecutors, Khobragade claimed she paid the woman $4,500 a month, but actually paid her around $3 per hour.

The account differs greatly from what the diplomat and Indian officials believe: Khobragade is the victim who was being blackmailed by her maid and was mistreated by authorities in the United States.

The case has touched off a diplomatic furor between the United States and India and chilled relations. India has revoked privileges for U.S. diplomats in protest, including diplomat ID cards that brought certain privileges as retaliation. Officials are demanding to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in U.S. Embassy households, and withdrawing import licenses that allowed the commissary at the U.S. Embassy to import alcohol and food.

Sussman and others in the U.S. say the outrage is misdirected.

"It's quite overwhelming for her," Sussman said of her client. "I think she's been frustrated with the response that somehow has been on the victimization of the defendant."

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said Thursday the housekeeper had tried to blackmail the diplomat and demanded charges be dropped. He said Richard had threatened over the summer to go to the police unless Khobragade arranged a new passport for her, along with a work visa and a large sum of money. Authorities in India said she reported Richard's demands to officials in New York and India.

Khurshid did not say how much money Richard sought. But two top Indian officials said the housekeeper asked for $10,000 in the presence of an immigration lawyer and two other witnesses. Both officials have close knowledge of the case, but spoke on condition that their names not be published because of the sensitivity of the case.

Sussman said the claims were inaccurate. "There was no extortion or anything along those lines," she said. "She essentially worked very long hours, was isolated within the home, and attempted to ask for more time off, ask for more reasonable hours, but those attempts to resolve the issues were unsuccessful."

The New York Police Department does not have a record of Khobragade complaining of being blackmailed, though it's possible she could have reported it to a different law enforcement agency. Khobragade reported the housekeeper missing in June. She had come to the U.S. about seven months earlier. The NYPD determined the woman had simply left and the case was closed.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a rare statement on the case that U.S. authorities brought Richard's family to New York after attempts were made to silence her and compel her to return to India. Sussman said the family is now "safe and secure."

Khobragade was arrested Dec. 13 and was strip-searched in custody, as is common practice according to the U.S. Marshals. But the idea of an educated, middle-class woman facing a strip-search is almost unheard of in India, except in the most extraordinary crimes. She also said she was subjected to a cavity search, which the Marshals deny.

Bharara said Khobragade was treated well and questioned why there was more sympathy for the diplomat than the housekeeper.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed regret over the incident, and State Department officials have declined to provide details about the case, citing law enforcement restrictions that prevent them from discussing it. They say they are still trying to assess what occurred.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke on Thursday with Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh. It was her second call with the Indian foreign secretary in two days.

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