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India removes barriers to U.S. embassy as anger grows over diplomat's arrest

A traffic policeman guides a bulldozer removing the security barriers in front of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi December 17, 2013. REUTERS/A
A traffic policeman guides a bulldozer removing the security barriers in front of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi December 17, 2013. REUTERS/A

By Shyamantha Asokan and Frank Jack Daniel

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian authorities removed concrete security barriers in front of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi on Tuesday in apparent retaliation for the arrest and allegedly heavy-handed treatment of an Indian diplomat in New York.

New Delhi police used tow trucks and a backhoe loader to drag away long concrete blocks from roads running past the embassy and leading up to gates of the compound, a Reuters witness said. The barriers had prevented vehicles approaching at high speeds.

Police and government officials refused to respond to repeated requests for comment on why the embassy barricades were taken away. But Indian television networks, citing unnamed sources, reported that the removal was one of several retaliatory measures that India planned to take.

A senior government official, who asked not to be named, said police posted in the area would ensure continued security.

"We take the security of all diplomatic missions in India very seriously. Check posts are provided. This is only an issue related to traffic flows," the official said.

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 U.S. 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 strip-searched before being released on bail.

Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was arrested on Thursday for allegedly underpaying her nanny and committing visa fraud to get her into the United States.

Khobragade, 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.

India has become a close trade and security partner of the United States over the past decade, but the two countries have not totally overcome a history of ties marked by distrust.

"Everything that can be done will be done I assure you. We take this thing very seriously," India's Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told news network CNN-IBN.

"We have put in motion what we believe will be an effective way of addressing this issue, but also put in motion such steps that we believe need to be taken to protect her dignity."

Indian television networks said the other steps included checking the salaries paid by U.S. embassy staff to domestic helpers and withdrawing consular identification cards and privileges such as access to airport lounges for some U.S. diplomats and their families.

India's foreign ministry and the U.S. embassy said they were unable to comment on the media reports.

Khobragade's arrest triggered a fierce debate in India over how to respond to the alleged mistreatment of the helper.

Government minister Shashi Tharoor, a former U.N. diplomat, said many envoys from developing countries in New York were themselves paid less than the U.S. minimum wage and that it was unrealistic to expect them to pay domestic staff more.

EYES ON ELECTION

Khobragade falsely stated in her nanny's visa application that she would be paid $9.75 an hour, a figure that would have been in line with the minimum rates required by U.S. law, according to a statement issued last week by the public attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The diplomat had privately agreed with the domestic worker that she would receive just over a third of that rate, the public attorney said.

With general elections due in less than six months, India's political parties are determined not to be labeled soft or unpatriotic.

Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, and Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that leads India's ruling Congress party, both declined to meet the U.S. delegation.

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

A senior member of Modi's socially conservative party, currently favorite to form the next government, said India should retaliate by putting partners of gay U.S. diplomats in the country behind bars. India's Supreme Court last week effectively ruled homosexuality to be illegal.

"The reason why they have arrested this Indian diplomat in New York is violation of the law of the land in the United States. Now the same violation is taking place wherever U.S. embassy official have obtained visas for their partners of the same sex," former finance minister Yashwant Sinha told Reuters.

"If American law can apply to Indian diplomats in New York, the India law can apply here," he said.

The case is the latest concerning alleged ill-treatment of domestic workers by India's elite, both at home and abroad.

In June 2011, an Indian maid working for the country's consul general in New York filed a lawsuit alleging that he was using her as forced labor.

A member of parliament's wife was arrested last month for allegedly beating her maid to death at her home in Delhi.

Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, consular officials enjoy immunity from arrest only for crimes committed in connection with their work.

U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Monday that diplomatic security staff had followed standard procedures during Khobragade's arrest and then handed her over to U.S. Marshals.

(Additional reporting by Adnan Abidi in NEW DELHI; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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