India retaliates in US envoy row

Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York.
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New Delhi: Indian authorities removed security barriers in front of the US Embassy in New Delhi on Tuesday apparently in retaliation for the arrest and alleged heavy-handed treatment of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York.

New Delhi police used tow trucks and bulldozers to remove the concrete barricades, which are used to restrict traffic on the road outside the embassy. As the dispute over the diplomat's treatment grew, several top politicians, including the leaders of the two main political parties and the national security adviser, refused to meet a delegation of US lawmakers visiting India this week.

India's National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon branded as "barbaric" the treatment of the diplomat, who, according to Indian media, was handcuffed upon arrest last week and then strip-searched before being released on bail.

Devyani was arrested for allegedly underpaying her nanny and committing visa fraud to get her into the United States. Devyani, who was released on $250,000 bail after pleading not guilty to the charges and surrendering her passport, faces a maximum of 15 years in jail if convicted on both counts.

US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Monday that diplomatic security staff had followed standard procedures during the arrest and then handed her over to US Marshals.

India launched a series of reprisals yesterday against US officials, foreign ministry sources said, as outrage grows over a diplomat's arrest in New York, which New Delhi has branded "humiliating".

In an escalating row over the arrest, the government ordered a range of measures including the return of identity cards for US consular officials that speed up travel into and through India, the sources said.

"We have ordered the withdrawal of all ID cards that are issued by the Ministry of External Affairs to the officials at the US consulates across India," a senior ministry source said on condition of anonymity. The government will also stop all import clearances for the US embassy including liquor, the sources said, while Indian security forces removed barricades from outside the US embassy in New Delhi.

Heavy barriers removed
Tow-trucks and mechanical diggers were seen taking away the heavy barriers which control traffic from the streets around the US embassy.  The moves come after deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade was arrested last week while dropping her children at school, for allegedly underpaying her domestic helper who is also an Indian national and for lying on the helper's visa application form.

Anger over the incident has been mounting in the Indian press with front-page reports on Tuesday claiming Khobragade had been handcuffed and "strip-searched and confined with drug addicts" after her arrest.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said on Tuesday, the government had "put in motion" measures to address the arrest, calling Khobragade's seizure "completely unacceptable".

"We have put in motion what we believe would be effective ways of addressing the issue but also (put) in motion such steps that need to be taken to protect her dignity," Khurshid told reporters without confirming the new reprisals.

India last Friday summoned the US ambassador to protest at the arrest, with a foreign ministry official saying at the time that India was "shocked and appalled" at the US handling of the incident.

The arrest cuts into a series of issues in India where fear of public humiliation, particularly among the middle and upper classes, resonates deeply.  

The case is also the latest involving alleged mistreatment of domestic workers by wealthy Indian families. Many are poorly paid in India and rights groups regularly report cases of beating and other abuse.

US State Department deputy spokesman Marie Harf said on Monday that diplomatic security staff "followed standard procedures" during the arrest before she was handed over to US Marshals.

Father's appeal
The diplomat's father urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene in the case and ensure his daughter's safe return to India.  

"I am concerned with the safety and dignity of my daughter. I want my daughter back safe in India," Uttam Khobragade told TV stations.

With general elections just months away in India, both the ruling Congress party and the main opposition are keen not to be seen as being too lenient with the United States over the issue.  

India's national security adviser called the diplomat's treatment "barbaric" while a string of senior politicians from both major parties snubbed a visiting US Congressional delegation over the issue.  

Opposition candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, said he had "refused" to meet the US delegation over the arrest.

"Refused to meet the visiting USA delegation in solidarity with our nation, protesting ill-treatment meted to our lady diplomat in USA," Modi said in a tweet.

The speaker of the lower house of parliament also called off a meeting with the US visitors, her office said, while Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde's office said he was too busy in parliament.


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