Amnesty to halt work in India due to government ‘witch-hunt’

a car parked in front of a building: Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP

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Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP

Amnesty International has been forced to shut down operations in India and lay off all staff there after the Indian government froze its bank accounts.

The Indian enforcement directorate, an agency that investigates economic crimes, froze the accounts of Amnesty’s Indian arm this month after the group published two reports highly critical of the government’s human rights record.

Amnesty said the move was the culmination of a two-year campaign of harassment by the home affairs ministry, and more broadly part of an “incessant witch-hunt” of human rights groups by the Hindu nationalist government of the prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Amnesty’s departure starkly illustrates the shrinking space for dissent in India, where critics of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party face investigation and detention, often under draconian terrorism laws. It also comes at a time when human rights violations, particularly against India’s 200 million Muslims, are on the rise.

This crackdown on critics – including lawyers, activists and students – has increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Courts are only partly functioning and protest gatherings have been banned.

Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India, said: “Treating human rights organisations like criminal enterprises and dissenting individuals as criminals without any credible evidence is a deliberate attempt by the enforcement directorate and government of India to stoke a climate of fear and dismantle the critical voices in India.”

a car parked in front of a building: Amnesty has halted its operations in India, claiming a crackdown by the government.

© Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP
Amnesty has halted its operations in India, claiming a crackdown by the government.

He added: “It reeks of fear and repression, ignores the human cost to this crackdown, particularly during a pandemic, and violates people’s basic rights.”

Amnesty International India’s bank accounts were frozen this month by the enforcement directorate without any prior warning. The human rights organisation has had to lay off 140 staff and cease operations immediately.

Authorities have been pursuing Amnesty for alleged money laundering for two years, a process described as an “incessant witch-hunt” by the group. Since 2018, multiple raids have been carried out on its offices and the homes of its executives by several government agencies.

Amnesty has denied all allegations of financial misconduct and said it stood in full compliance with all applicable Indian and international laws. No charges have been filed against the organisation.

The enforcement directorate has not responded to requests for comment.

Related: Amnesty India staff complain of harassment and discrimination

Most recently, Amnesty published two reports critical of Indian authorities: one alleging rights violations and involvement of police in communal riots in Delhi, and another condemning restrictions on civil liberties in Jammu and Kashmir a year after the government revoked the region’s political autonomy.

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

Russia is the only other country where Amnesty has been forced to completely close down after government interference.

There has been a particular focus from the Indian government on organisations perceived to be funded from overseas. This month, it tightened restrictions on foreign-funded charities and has previously frozen the bank accounts of Greenpeace and raided the offices of human rights lawyers.

Julie Verhaar, Amnesty International’s acting secretary general, said: “This is an egregious and shameful act by the Indian government, which forces us to cease the crucial human rights work of Amnesty International India for now.”

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