BY ASHOK SHARMA And COLLEEN LONG
---- — NEW YORK — 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 yesterday.
From that moment on, Sangeeta Richard relied on the kindness of strangers within the Indian community in New York City, and even was cared for 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,” attorney Dana Sussman said.
The housekeeper and her Safe Horizon attorney, Dana 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.
Richard’s and Khobragade’s accounts of the events that led to the diplomat’s arrest and touched off a diplomatic furor between the United States and India differ greatly.
The diplomat and Indian officials say Khobragade is the victim who was being blackmailed by her maid and was mistreated by authorities in the United States.
The case has chilled U.S.-Indian relations, and India has revoked privileges for U.S. diplomats in protest. India revoked diplomat ID cards that brought certain privileges as retaliation, 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 been blackmailing the diplomat. 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.
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 about 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. The NYPD determined the woman had simply left and the case was closed.
Eventually, U.S. authorities brought Richard’s family to the U.S. after attempts were made to silence her and compel her to return to India, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a rare statement on the case. Sussman said the family is now “safe and secure.”
Khobragade was arrested outside of her daughter’s school and strip-searched, 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 she was treated well and questioned why there was more sympathy for the diplomat than the housekeeper.
Khurshid said the U.S. attorney had ignored the fact that a legal case was already under way in India in the dispute between the housekeeper and the diplomat. Khobragade notified authorities in Delhi over the summer that she was being blackmailed, and the Delhi police launched a case against the woman, Indian officials said.
“When the legal process in another friendly and democratic country is interfered with in this manner, it not only amounts to interference, but also raises the serious concern of calling into question the very legal system of that country,” said Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the External Affairs Ministry.
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.
Khurshid said he would speak to Kerry later Thursday.
“This is an extremely distressing and hurtful incident that needs to be addressed,” he said. “We hope our concerns will be addressed. And if the U.S. has any concerns that we need to address, we will examine them.”
Khurshid also said that India did not want to sour relations with the United States over the issue, but would insist on the return of its diplomat and the dropping of charges against her. “We are keen that no damage of an irreversible nature should happen to our relationship,” he said.
Khobragade could face a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration if convicted. She has said she has full diplomatic immunity. The Department of State disputes that, saying her immunity is limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. Her work status yesterday was unclear.
Indian consulate spokesman Venkatasamy Perumal said Khobragade was transferred this week to India’s U.N. mission, but he declined to comment further, and requests for comment to the U.N. mission’s first secretary were not immediately returned.
The Khobragade case touches a nerve in part because there have been a series of controversies involving Indians exploiting domestic workers, and the salaries paid to housekeepers and other workers in India are far lower than those paid in the United States.
Having a live-in maid or part-time domestic help is common in Indian households, even among the lower and middle classes. A salary of $3 an hour, or around $24 for an eight-hour day, is more than what a well-paid maid would earn in New Delhi or Mumbai.
Typical salaries for full-time, live-in maids range from $100 to $150 per month, with most families also offering lodging, food, clothes and medical assistance.