In a statement, Amnesty International India said that it came to know on September 10 that the Indian government froze the human rights NGO’s bank accounts.

The office of Amnesty International India picture taken at night with yellow logo at the side of the building
news Human rights Tuesday, September 29, 2020 - 11:07

Amnesty International India announced on Tuesday that it will be halting all operations in India and all of its staff in the country has been let go after it got to know on September 10 that its bank accounts were frozen. In a statement, the organisation said that it was “compelled” to let go of people and pause all ongoing campaigns and research work. 

“This is latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organizations by the Government of India over unfounded and motivated allegations,” Amnesty International India said.

Sources told TNM that Amnesty India is looking at approaching the court as well, but it is uncertain when they will get a hearing due to the pandemic. 

Close to 150 employees have reportedly lost their jobs due to this. These employees were part of teams such as research, campaigns, advocacy, and tele-callers. The circumstances have also been exacerbated as jobs are scarce to the pandemic. 

Amnesty India said that it is in compliance with all Indian and international laws which are applicable, and that for India, it has a distinct model of raising funds within India itself. Since it is done domestically, the NGO said it cannot have anything to do with the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, which is to receive money from abroad. 

“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,” Amnesty said in its statement. 

The human rights NGO said that its premises as well as the residence of one of the Directors was raided by the Enforcement Directorate in 2018, after which bank accounts were frozen. At the time itself, it was forced to let go of staff, which it said adversely affected its work in India, including with marginalised communities. 

While its bank accounts were frozen in 2018 as well, the source told TNM that things are worse than they were in 2018 as at the time, Amnesty had the ability to pay three months salary in advance, but not anymore. All employees are expected to be turning in their resignations by Tuesday, the source added.  

“Despite the ongoing investigations and before the framing of charges, the Government of India started a smear campaign against Amnesty International India in the country through selective leaking of documents gathered by the ED, to government-aligned media outlets. This resulted in a malicious media trial against the organization,” it said.

It then added that from 2019 onwards, the organisation’s regular small donors started receiving letters from the Income Tax department, and while no irregularities were found, fundraising was affected. 

Amnesty has launched a number of publications, but says that the release of two publications —  an update on the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir a year after the abrogation of Article 370, and a report on the Delhi riots on its six month anniversary — “has provided fresh impetus to the establishment to harass and intimidate Amnesty International India through its investigative agencies.”

Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India, said, “The continuing crackdown on Amnesty International India over the last two years and the complete freezing of bank accounts is not accidental. The constant harassment by government agencies including the Enforcement Directorate 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. For a movement that has done nothing but raise its voices against injustice, this latest attack is akin to freezing dissent.” 

Avinash added that the ED and the Union of Government are stoking a climate of dismantling critical voices by treating human rights organisations and individuals as criminals and criminal enterprises. 

“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 and international human rights law. Instead, as a global power and a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, India must fearlessly welcome calls for accountability and justice,” he added.

Julie Verhaar, the Acting General Secretary of Amnesty International, called it "an egregious and shameful act by the Indian Government". 

"We will be working resolutely to determine how Amnesty International can continue to play our part within the human rights movement in India for years to come," she added. She said that they are "proud of the vital work" carried out by employees regardless of risks they faced, "including their unequivocal calls for accountability for the actions of the authorities during the Delhi riots and in Jammu and Kashmir and their work on gender based violence". This, she said, has been met with heavy-handed tactics that the Indian civil society has become increasingly familiar with -- "part of the government’s drive to silence critical voices and stoke a climate of fear."

“It is a dismal day when a country of India’s stature, a rising global power and a member of the UN Human Rights Council, with a constitution which commits to human rights and whose national human rights movements have influenced the world, so brazenly seeks to silence those who pursue accountability and justice," she said.

In March 2009 too Amnesty India had stopped operations in India temporarily when the then UPA government denied FCRA registration to the organisation. 

Also read: Explainer: What is the FCRA Amendment Bill and why NGOs are opposing it

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