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Amnesty International shuts down in India

On Sept. 29, Amnesty International announced it laid off all staff members and is suspending work in India after its bank accounts were frozen by the Indian government.  


The bank accounts were frozen on Sept. 10, weeks after the organization published reports that were highly critical of the government. 


The Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government accused Amnesty International of breaking laws around foreign funding. 


“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,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in a statement.


“Amnesty is free to continue humanitarian work in India, as is being done by many other organizations. However, India, by settled law, does not allow interference in domestic political debates by entities funded by foreign donations. This law applies equally to all and it shall apply to Amnesty International as well.”


The statement accused Amnesty International of violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). FCRA places restrictions on foreign funding for non-governmental organizations. In 2016, the United Nations issued a statement urging for the repeal of the law as it was “being used more and more to silence organizations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.”


Amnesty International called the accusation that laws were broken an “incessant witch-hunt.”


In a statement, Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India, said “Amnesty International India stands in full compliance with all applicable Indian and international laws. For human rights work in India, it operates through a distinct model of raising funds domestically.”


Amnesty International believes that the freezing of their bank accounts was a politically motivated move from the Indian government.


“The continuing crackdown on Amnesty International India over the last two years and the complete freezing of bank accounts is not accidental,” Kumar said.  


“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.” 


In response to the report on the Delhi riots that was released in August, Delhi police told The Hindu Amnesty International’s report was “lopsided, biased and malicious,” as reported by BBC


This was not the first time the Indian government froze Amnesty International India’s bank accounts. In October 2018—following a 10-hour raid—Amnesty International’s bank accounts were frozen, causing a staff layoff. 


“India has a rich and pluralistic democratic culture with a free press, independent judiciary and tradition of vibrant domestic debate,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote in a statement. “Amnesty’s failure to comply with local regulations does not entitle them to make comments on the democratic and plural character of India.”


“India’s stature as a liberal democracy with free institutions, including media & civil society organizations, accounted for much of its soft power in the world,” wrote Shashi Tharoor, a Congressperson and former diplomat, on Twitter. “Actions like this both undermine our reputation as a democracy & vitiate our soft power.”


The only other time Amnesty International shut down operations was in Russia when authorities locked staff out of their office in 2016.


“We are facing a rather unprecedented situation in India,” said Rajat Khosla, Amnesty’s senior director of research, advocacy and policy, according to BBC. “Amnesty International India has been facing an onslaught of attacks, bullying and harassment by the government in a very systematic manner,” 


Human Rights Watch accused the Indian government of mimicking authoritarian regimes by bringing politically motivated charges against activists and others critical of the government under charges of terrorism and sedition. 


“India does not stand in good company with these moves it is making,” Khosla said. “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.”


According to BBC, Amnesty International plans to continue fighting its legal case in India.


“As many of our colleagues have lost their jobs this week thanks to the actions of the Government of India, we will look for ways to continue our support to them as we continue to call on the Government to end its shameful crackdown on those who stand up for human rights of Indians,” said Acting Secretary General of Amnesty International Julie Verhaar.