India asks U.S. Embassy to cease sales to nondiplomats

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NEW DELHI -- India chipped away at U.S. diplomatic perks Wednesday, ordering the envoys to obey local traffic laws and warning that a popular U.S. Embassy club violates diplomatic law because it is open to outsiders.

The moves were the latest in a campaign to exert pressure on the United States following the arrest and strip search last month of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat based in New York City. Indian officials have called the strip search barbaric and unnecessary.

Ms. Khobragade, 39, is accused of paying her Indian maid less than the U.S. minimum wage and lying about it on a visa application. She pleaded not guilty to fraud charges and is free on bail.

The case has caused an outcry in India, where the idea of an educated, middle-class woman facing a strip search is seen as outrageous and heavy-handed. India has unleashed a steady stream of retaliatory measures. Some of the moves, such as preventing the American Center from screening movies, are seen as little more than needling the United States. But other actions have raised some alarm, including removal of concrete traffic barriers around the U.S. Embassy and revoking diplomats' ID cards.

On Wednesday, the Press Trust of India news agency reported that India ordered the United States to stop all "commercial activities" by Jan. 16 at the American Community Support Association club. The club has a restaurant, bar, bowling alley, swimming pool and other amenities. India says the fact that non-diplomats can join the club, at a cost of more than $1,300 per year, violates the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

The agency also reported that New Delhi warned that U.S. Embassy vehicles would not be immune to penalties for traffic offenses such as unauthorized parking and running red lights.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States endeavors always to comply with local laws and regulations and is reviewing India's requests for action. She declined to criticize India and maintained that "both sides want to move this relationship forward."

Ms. Khobragade was arrested Dec. 13 and was strip-searched in custody, as is common practice, according to the U.S. Marshals.

But anger is still smoldering in India more than a month after the arrest. She could face a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration if convicted.

Ms. Khobragade has said she has full diplomatic immunity. U.S. federal officials dispute that, saying her immunity is limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. U.S. prosecutors and lawyers for Khobragade are at odds over a possible plea deal.


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