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Indian diplomat's father says maid was like family

By Ashok Sharma

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 20 2013 8:42 a.m. MST

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.

Rafiq Maqbool, Associated Press

NEW DELHI — The father of an Indian diplomat accused of underpaying her housekeeper in New York said Friday his daughter treated the woman like family, the latest claim in a case that has sparked a tempest between India and the United States.

India has protested Devyani Khobragade's arrest on a visa fraud charge and says the strip search was degrading and unncessary. The U.S. Marshals service said it was standard procedure. But in India, such treatment for an educated, middle-class woman is unheard-of, except in the most outrageous crimes.

Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, says she's being targeted by a vindictive housekeeper who wants to stay in the United States. The housekeeper says she was overworked and underpaid and needed to escape.

On Friday, the diplomat's father, Uttam, said his daughter treated the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, like a member of the family. He said Richard had Sundays off. He filed a lawsuit in India earlier this year on his daughter's behalf, saying Richard was wrongly accusing his daughter of treating her like a slave.

But Richard's lawyer said Thursday that the housekeeper worked from morning until late at night, seven days week, for less than $3 an hour. Unable to get better pay, she made sure Khobragade's two children were cared for one day and walked out.

From that moment on, lawyer Dana Sussman said, 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," Sussman said.

The case generated headlines in India over what Indian officials described as disgraceful treatment of a diplomat.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed regret, 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.

But U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said earlier this week that Khobragade was treated well and questioned why there was more sympathy for the diplomat than the housekeeper.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh for a second day Thursday.

"Both parties affirmed our intent to keep working through this complex issue. We certainly look forward to having further conversations," U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has demanded the 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.

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."

Khurshid said that India did not want to sour relations, 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 is 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.

Khobragade has said she has full diplomatic immunity. U.S. officials say her immunity is limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.

Indian consulate spokesman Venkatasamy Perumal said Khobragade has been transferred to India's U.N. mission, but he declined to comment further.

Associated Press writers Colleen Long in New York and Deb Riechmann in Washington and contributed to this report.

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