Amnesty suspends India work after bank accounts frozen

By: News Desk      Published: 03:53 PM, 29 Sep, 2020
Amnesty suspends India work after bank accounts frozen
File photo.

Amnesty International said Tuesday it has suspended its Indian operations after its bank accounts were frozen in what it called a government "witch-hunt" against rights groups.

Non-governmental organisations have long alleged they face harassment from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist administration for highlighting rights abuses, including in Indian-Occupied Kashmir.

Amnesty said that it came to know on September 10 that its Indian bank accounts were frozen, forcing it to let go of staff and pause all ongoing campaign and research work. "This is the latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organizations by the Government of India over unfounded and motivated allegations," the group said in a statement.

Amnesty said that the freezing of its accounts is "no accident" after it issued a series of reports alleging "grave human rights violations" by police in deadly sectarian riots in New Delhi in February, and by security forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

"Treating human rights organisations like criminal enterprises and dissenting individuals as criminals without any credible evidence is a deliberate attempt... to stoke a climate of fear and dismantle the critical voices in India," said Avinash Kumar, Amnesty India's executive director.

"It reeks of fear and repression, ignores the human cost to this crackdown particularly during a pandemic and violates people's basic rights to freedom of speech and expression, assembly, and association guaranteed by the Indian Constitution," he said in the statement.

The Indian government was yet to comment on Amnesty's announcement.

Rajat Khosla, the group's senior director of research, advocacy and policy, told BBC "We are facing a rather unprecedented situation in India. Amnesty International India has been facing an onslaught of attacks, bullying and harassment by the government in a very systematic manner." 

"This is all down to the human rights work that we were doing and the government not wanting to answer questions we raised, whether it's in terms of our investigations into the Delhi riots, or the silencing of voices in Jammu and Kashmir."

In a report released last month, the group said police in the Indian capital, Delhi, committed human rights violations during deadly religious riots between Hindus and Muslims in February. 

Rebutting the claims, the Delhi police told The Hindu newspaper that Amnesty's report was "lopsided, biased and malicious".

Earlier in August, on the first anniversary of the revocation of Indian-occupied Kashmir's special status, Amnesty had called for the release of all detained political leaders, activists and journalists, and for the resumption of high-speed internet services in the region.

In 2019, the watchdog testified before the US Foreign Affairs Committee during a hearing on human rights in South Asia, where it highlighted its findings on arbitrary detentions, and the use of excessive force and torture in Kashmir. 

Amnesty has also repeatedly condemned what it says is a crackdown on dissent in India

The group, which has faced scrutiny by different government agencies over the past few years, says the freezing of its bank accounts earlier this month was the final straw.

In August 2016, a case of sedition was filed against Amnesty India over allegations that anti-India slogans were raised at one of its events. Three years later, a court ordered the charges to be dropped. 

In October 2018, the group's offices in the southern city of Bangalore were raided by the Enforcement Directorate, which investigates financial crimes. Its accounts were frozen then too, but Amnesty says it was able to access them after seeking a court's intervention. 

In early 2019, the group says dozens of its small donors were sent letters by the country's income tax department. And later in the same year, Amnesty's offices were raided again, this time by the Central Bureau of Investigation, based on a case registered by India's home affairs ministry. 

Successive governments in India have been wary of foreign funded non-profit, particularly human rights organisations. 

Amnesty had previously suspended its India operations in 2009, because of what the group said was repeated rejection of their licence to receive funds from overseas. India was then ruled by a Congress-led government, which sits in opposition now. 

Over the years rules surrounding receiving foreign funds have been tightened, and thousands of non-profit groups have been banned from receiving money from overseas.

The current government has previously stated that Amnesty was being investigated over suspicions that the group was violating Indian laws surrounding foreign funding. 

"That's a blatant lie. Amnesty India is in full compliance of all domestic legal requirements and international legal requirements as well," Mr Khosla told BBC. 

The group's announcement comes amid growing concern over the state of free speech in India. The development, activists say, could dent India's long-standing reputation of being a thriving democracy.

"India does not stand in good company with these moves it is making. We operate in over 70 countries, and the only other country previously that we had been forced to shut operations in was Russia in 2016," says Mr Khosla. "I hope people around the world sit up and take notice. We are doing this with a very heavy heart, and a deep sense of anguish and grief." 

The group says it will continue to fight its legal cases in India.