By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations has approved a request from India to accredit a New York-based diplomat after her arrest by U.S. authorities on criminal charges including visa fraud, a U.N. official said on Monday.
Indian media said the request to transfer Devyani Khobragade, who was deputy consul-general in New York, to the United Nations was aimed at ending the stand-off with the United States in the hopes that her new diplomatic status could allow New Delhi to bring her home without the prosecution proceeding.
"The U.N. has processed the request to register Ms. Khobragade as a member of the Permanent Mission of India to the U.N.," a U.N. source said on condition of anonymity. "However, the final stop in the process is the U.S. (State Department)."
Khobragade's arrest on December 12 has enraged India, which is demanding that all charges be dropped against her. She was strip searched when arrested in what the U.S. Marshals Service said was a routine procedure imposed on any new arrestee at the federal courthouse.
Khobragade pleaded not guilty to charges of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her housekeeper. She was released on $250,000 bail.
As India's deputy consul general in New York, Khobragade had only limited diplomatic immunity from prosecution - not the more sweeping immunity accorded to U.N-accredited diplomats.
Khobragade's lawyer, Daniel Arshack, told Reuters that "the U.N. forwarded her materials on to the State Department, which has not yet acted on the visa transfer request."
A State Department official confirmed that the United States had received paperwork from the United Nations late on Friday in which India is requesting to switch Khobragade's accreditation to the Indian mission to the U.N.
"It is under review," the official told Reuters.
According to U.N. guidelines on diplomatic privileges and immunities, documents certifying diplomatic immunity, if approved, are usually issued by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations within two weeks of the initial request.
Diplomatic sources said that the broader immunity Khobragade would receive as a U.N.-accredited diplomat could make it harder to follow through on a prosecution against her.
One possible scenario to solve the crisis would be that she receives full diplomatic immunity in her U.N. post if the State Department approves her transfer. The U.S. government would then ask for her immunity to be removed so she can face prosecution. Assuming India refused, the State Department could then take steps to have her removed from the country.
Asoke Mukerji, India's ambassador to the United Nations, wrote last week to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon informing him of the 39-year-old diplomat's planned transfer to the U.N. mission from the Indian consulate.
In an unusual move, the United States has flown the family of the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, out of India. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has said attempts were made in India to "silence" Richard and compel her to return home.
A spokeswoman for Bharara declined to comment on Monday on the U.N. approval of Khobragade's transfer to the U.N. mission.
(Additional reporting by Nate Raymond, Michelle Nichols and Chris Francescani in New York, Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Grant McCool and Bill Trott)