Amnesty International halts India operations citing govt witch-hunt

Amnesty International India headquarters in Bengaluru Photo: PTI
Amnesty International on Tuesday halted its work in India days after its bank accounts were frozen by the government in what the organisation called a witch-hunt of human rights organisations.

Amnesty International was compelled to let go of staff and pause all ongoing campaigns and research work after it came to know about the freezing on September 10. Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India, said the government crackdown over the past two years was not accidental and was akin to freezing dissent.

“The constant harassment by government agencies, including the ED, is a result of our unequivocal calls for transparency in the government, more recently for accountability of the Delhi police and the Government of India regarding the grave human rights violations in Delhi riots and Jammu & Kashmir,” he said.

On August 28, Amnesty International India released an investigative brief on the complicity of the police in the Delhi riots. It had released an update on the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir earlier that month.

In a press statement, Amnesty said more than four million Indians have supported its work over the past eight years and around 100,000 have made financial contributions that have no relation to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010.

“The fact that the government is now portraying this lawful fundraising model as money-laundering is evidence that the overbroad legal framework is maliciously activated when human rights activists and groups challenge the government’s grave inactions and excesses,” the statement said.

Responding to the development, the Union home ministry said human rights cannot be an excuse for defying the law. In a statement, it said the stand taken by the organisation was unfortunate, exaggerated and far from the truth.

It said that after being denied FCRA approval, Amnesty circumvented the regulations, with its UK entity remitting large amounts of money to four entities registered in India, by classifying it as foreign direct investment and a large amount was also remitted to Amnesty India.

The home ministry said, “All the glossy statements about humanitarian work and speaking truth to power are nothing but a ploy to divert attention from their activities, which were in clear contravention of laid down Indian laws.”

Amnesty is free to continue humanitarian work in India, the home ministry said. It added, however, that India does not allow interference in domestic political debates by entities funded through foreign donations. “This law applies equally to all and it shall apply to Amnesty International as well... Amnesty’s failure to comply with local regulations does not entitle them to make comments on the democratic and plural character of India.”

ED probe

Meanwhile, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) clarified that there was no probe against the parent organisation, but against two of its subsidiaries — Amnesty International India and Amnesty International Trust. These entities are being scrutinised under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA).

It had issued a show-cause notice to Amnesty International charging it with violating FEMA rules to the tune of Rs 51 crore in September 2019. This was the reason bank deposits of both entities were frozen, said an ED official.

Amnesty International India has allegedly received export proceeds of Rs 51.72 crore from [financial year 2013-14, or FY14] to FY19 from the UK-based Amnesty International. However, investigation has proved that no services were exported and the amounts received were in contravention to provisions of FEMA and PMLA,” the official explained.  

This action was challenged in the Karnataka High Court by both entities but was found legally justified, he said.

A senior accountant with specialisation in FCRA said the action was not part of a larger crackdown on NGOs but more of a slugfest between the organisation and the government. “Many NGOs believe that the government is wrong on several issues. Can an NGO challenge the might of the government? In its defence, the government will say it is democratically elected...Both parties need to come to an understanding.”

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