Rara Avis is a Latin term for a “rare bird.” The diplomatic fraternity could well coin the term “Bharara Avis” to describe this US attorney, a rare prosecutor who simply does not lose sight of his quarry no matter what the political costs are.
In a move that Indian officialdom is certain to see as cussed and vindictive, the office of Preet Bharara, the nemesis of errant Indian diplomats in New York, filed a fresh indictment against Devyani Khobragade a day after a district judge had dismissed the case against her. The court had ruled that she had diplomatic immunity when she was charged earlier. But the ruling had given Bharara leeway to re-indict her by indicating the immunity was good only as long as she was assigned to the UN in New York, and the prosecutors were free to charge her anew since she had moved on from that window.
On Friday, Bharara’s office did exactly that, essentially reiterating the charges against the diplomat of visa fraud and misrepresentation in a case involving her housekeeper Sangeeta Richard. Cautionary advise by Khobragade’s attorney Daniel Arshack that any new indictment would be viewed as “‘unnecessarily aggressive” and “one that (prosecutors) would be ill-advised to pursue,” didn’t deter the US attorney, who is widely seen as a man with a mission, who remains unswayed by the fact that his target is from the same country as the one of his origin.
Considering Khobragade has already left the US for India under what was virtually a limited “immunity deal” with the state department, nothing useful can be gained from re-indicting her — except for the US attorney’s office to reiterate its position even in the face of diplomatic pressure. But the charges also dissuade Khobragade from returning to the US to re-unite with her New York-based family, with the Damocles sword of an arrest hanging over her head. Any reunion will now have to take place outside the US, unless the New Delhi and Washington arrive at a modus vivendi aimed at having Bharara drop, or at least forgo, the charges. New Delhi could also be bloody-minded and re-assign her to the UN with full diplomatic immunity provided Washington signs off on it.
But the state department, at least its legal bureau, has backed Bharara repeatedly in this episode. In fact, state department officials said the department filed a brief before the court opposing the motion to dismiss the case against Khobragade and was surprised by the ruling, even though it agreed that she had immunity for the period New Delhi re-assigned her to the UN. “We stand by our motion that we filed in the brief opposing the dismissal of the charges. We stand by that position, absolutely,” State department spokesperson Marie Harf said.
Not everyone in the Obama administration is thrilled with Bharara’s crusade in this case. In private conversations, administration officials have conceded that the Khobragade flap had robbed the bilateral ties of energy and momentum, although they maintained Bharara had gone by the book. But diplomacy is not played by the book, they acknowledged. “Besides, he’s not the one who will be serving in missions in India,” one mandarin observed ruefully, alluding to the fact that the fracas had resulted in the withdrawal of many privileges that US diplomats enjoyed in India unless it was offered to Indian diplomats in US on a reciprocal basis.
But at the end of the day, it appeared the state department’s political mandarins were not going to pick up cudgels against the department’s own bureau of diplomatic security, its human rights and civil liberties campaigners, and its legal eagles, all of who combined to initiate and back the case against Devyani Khobragade. It was not clear how much New Delhi would push its point of view either, now that the controversial diplomat, who is having her own run-ins with South Block, had been “rescued” from New York.