Amnesty Int'l halts India operations, citing gov't reprisals

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FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, file photo, Amnesty International India employees work at their headquarters in Bangalore, India. The Human rights watchdog said on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, that it was halting its operation in India, citing reprisals from the government and the freezing of its bank accounts. Its announcement comes at a time amid growing concerns over the state of free speech in India where critics accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist government of increasingly brandishing laws to silence human rights activists, intellectuals, filmmakers, students and journalists. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi, File)

NEW DELHI – Human rights watchdog Amnesty International said Tuesday that it is halting its operation in India, citing reprisals by the government and the freezing of its bank accounts by Indian authorities.

Amnesty International India said it has laid off its staff and paused all its ongoing campaign and research work on human rights, and that Indian authorities froze its bank accounts on suspicion of violating rules on foreign funding.

It said in a statement that the authorities' actions were “the latest in the incessant witch hunt of human rights organizations by the government of India,” and that the group's fundraising was being portrayed as money laundering because it has challenged the “government’s grave inactions and excesses.”

The Ministry of Home Affairs called the allegations “exaggerated and far from the truth.”

It said Amnesty India's applications to function under a law regulating foreign grants to non-government organizations had been denied by successive governments since 2000 and that the group had circumvented the law by resorting to “mala fide rerouting of money.”

Amnesty International previously suspended its India operations in 2009 when its application to receive funds from overseas was denied by the then-governing Congress party, which now sits in opposition.

“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 said in a statement.

Amnesty India’s executive director, Avinash Kumar, said the accounts were frozen as a result of the group’s “unequivocal calls for transparency in the government" and for the accountability of New Delhi police and the Indian government regarding “grave human rights violations in Delhi riots” and Indian-administered Kashmir.

“For a movement that has done nothing but raise its voices against injustice, this latest attack is akin to freezing dissent,” Kumar said in a statement.

Amnesty International said the only other country where it has ceased operations is Russia, in 2016.

It is not the first time that Amnesty India has said Indian authorities targeted its operations. In 2018, authorities raided its office and froze its bank accounts on similar charges.

In 2016, it faced sedition charges after Hindu nationalists objected to an event held in the southern city of Bangalore to discuss human rights violations in the disputed region of Kashmir. The charges were dropped three years later.

The rights group regularly accuses Indian authorities of committing human rights violations in Indian-administered Kashmir and has released multiple reports on the raging conflict in the region.

In 2019, the watchdog testified before the U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee during a hearing on human rights in South Asia and highlighted its findings on the use of force and torture in Kashmir.

In August, it said Indian police violated human rights during deadly religious riots in New Delhi earlier this year and accused police of beating protesters, torturing detainees and in some cases taking part in riots together with Hindu mobs.

Authorities say more than 50 people were killed when clashes broke out between Hindus and Muslims over a citizenship law in February, in the worst rioting in the Indian capital in decades.

Amnesty International’s acting secretary general, Julie Verhaar, called the freezing of the bank accounts an “egregious and shameful act" by the Indian government.

“It is a dismal day when a country of India’s stature, a rising global power and a member of the U.N. 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,” Verhaar said in a statement.

Amnesty India has repeatedly condemned what it says is a crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech in India.

Its announcement that it is halting operations comes at a time when critics accuse Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party of increasingly brandishing laws to silence human rights activists, intellectuals, filmmakers, students and journalists.

Under Modi, critics say, India is increasingly intolerant, with a crackdown on dissent unprecedented in scale. Leaders of Modi’s party have routinely labeled critics as “anti-nationals,” and the authorities have dealt with many rights advocates and activists with an iron fist.