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Published: Wednesday December 18, 2013 MYT 10:00:01 PM
Updated: Wednesday December 18, 2013 MYT 10:00:52 PM

India trims perks for U.S. staff in row over New York envoy arrest

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India took retaliatory measures against the United States on Wednesday in a row over an Indian diplomat who complained of being stripped and forced to undergo "cavity searches" while in U.S. detention.

The measures included a revision of work conditions of Indians employed at U.S. consulates and a freeze on the import of duty-free alcohol.

Devyani Khobragade, a deputy consul general at the Indian Consulate in New York, was arrested on December 12 on charges of visa fraud and underpaying her housekeeper, an Indian national. She was released on a $250,000 bail.

In an email to colleagues, Khobragade complained of "repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing" and being detained in a holding cell with petty criminals despite her "incessant assertions of immunity".

The email, reported in Indian media and confirmed as accurate by the government, caused outrage. With a general election due soon, politicians are determined not to be seen as soft on such an issue or unpatriotic.

On Tuesday, authorities removed concrete security barriers used to prevent vehicles driving at high speed near the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. The barriers would offer some protection against a suicide-bomb attack.

The U.S. Justice Department has confirmed that Khobragade was strip-searched. A senior Indian government source confirmed that the interrogation also included a cavity search.

India has responded furiously to what it considers the degrading treatment of a senior diplomat by the United States, a country it sees as a close friend.

"It is no longer about an individual, it is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world," Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told parliament, whose usually fractious members showed rare unity on the issue.

Khurshid said work conditions of Indians employed in U.S. consulates would be investigated, to root out any violations of labour laws, and there would be a freeze on the duty free import of alcohol and food for diplomatic staff.

Several politicians argue that India provides too many perks to U.S. consular staff. Khurshid reined in some of these on Wednesday, saying passes giving such staff access to airport lounges had to be turned in by Thursday.

SMALL PROTEST

Supporters of a right-wing opposition party held a small protest near the U.S. embassy on Wednesday. About 30 demonstrators, some wearing masks of President Barack Obama and sarongs made from the U.S. flag, demanded an apology.

"It was very good that the government removed the barriers yesterday. Until the USA says sorry, we should not give any security at all to the Americans," said protester Gaurav Khattar, 33.

The U.S. State Department said it had told the Indian government it expects New Delhi to protect its embassy and stressed it did not want the incident with the diplomat to hurt ties.

The embassy did not respond to requests for information about what action would be taken to replace the barriers. The compound has several other layers of security and is protected by a high wall.

Status conscious Indian dignitaries are often able to skip security checks and deal with legal problems discreetly in India. Less delicate handling abroad can be a shock.

A series of incidents in which politicians and celebrities have been detained or frisked at U.S. airports has heightened sensitivities about what is seen as harsh treatment abroad.

Shah Rukh Khan, one of Bollywood's best-loved actors, was detained at White Plains airport near New York last year and at Newark airport in 2009. Former president APJ Abdul Kalam was frisked on board a plane at New York's JFK airport in 2011.

The Khobragade case is the latest concerning the Indian elite's alleged exploitation of their domestic workers, both at home and abroad.

Another official at India's consulate in New York was fined almost $1.5 million last year for using her maid as forced labour. Last month, the wife of a member of parliament was arrested in Delhi for allegedly beating her maid to death.

India says Khobragade's former housekeeper left her employer a few months ago and demanded help to obtain permanent resident status in the United States. She is thought to be in the United States but her whereabouts are not known.

One Indian government minister, Shashi Tharoor, has argued that it was not reasonable to expect diplomats from developing countries to pay the U.S. minimum wage to domestic staff, since the envoys themselves earned less than that.

(Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)

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