NGO Amnesty International on Tuesday announced that it was shutting its offices in India and letting go of its staff, nearly 150 members, in Bengaluru and Delhi following the freezing of its bank accounts by the Enforcement Directorate.
“The complete freezing of Amnesty International India’s bank accounts by the Government of India which it came to know on 10 September 2020, brings all the work being done by the organization to a grinding halt,” Amnesty International India said in a statement. The offices will shut by Wednesday.
Amnesty called the freezing of accounts “akin to freezing dissent” and said the action was “the latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organizations”, leaving them unable to carry on with campaign and research work in India. Executive Director of Amnesty International India Avinash Kumar said over email that they would approach the Karnataka High Court.
The European Union became the first international body to raise the issue through diplomatic channels. In an email responding to The Indian Express, the EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security policy in Brussels, Nabila Massrali, said, “Not prejudging the outcome of any investigation or judicial proceedings, the European Union highly values the work of Amnesty International worldwide and hopes that the matter will be resolved allowing Amnesty to continue its activities in India without interruption.”
She said they had “raised the issue with our Indian interlocutors in New Delhi and in Brussels expressing our concerns and the expectation that these issues will be solved, and we will continue to do so”. “The EU is committed to the protection and empowerment of civic actors.”
The Union Home Ministry (MHA) said Amnesty’s claims of a “witch hunt” were “far from the truth”. The Ministry said Amnesty had been given permission under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) only once, in 2000, and since denied the same despite requests, including by the UPA government. It accused Amnesty UK of circumventing the regulations by remitting large amounts of money to four entities registered in India, by classifying it as FDI.
“Amnesty is free to continue humanitarian work in India, as is being done by many other organisations. However, India, by settled law, does not allow interference in domestic political debates by entities funded by foreign donations,” the MHA said.
In a statement, Amnesty’s 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 the 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.”
Amnesty said they came to know on September 10 that all their bank accounts were frozen by the ED as part of a probe into a 2018 case. “We assessed all scenarios where we could survive but there was none,’’ an Amnesty India staff member said.
Some of Amnesty’s 150 staff members will continue as volunteers in order to ensure continuity of its programmes.
The government case against Amnesty India broadly rests on two investigations, one alleging discrepancies under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, and another case that was registered by the CBI alleging violations under the FCRA.
In October 2018, Amnesty India properties in Bengaluru had been searched by the ED after the Amnesty International India Foundation Trust was accused of creating a commercial arm called Amnesty International India Pvt Ltd (AIIPL) allegedly to receive foreign funding in violation of the FCRA rules.
According to the ED case, Amnesty International India had “received foreign funds through a commercial route to the extent of Rs 36 crore’’. Out of this, Rs 10 crore had been received as long-term loan and placed in fixed deposits while an Indian entity, Indians for Amnesty International Trust, had established an overdraft facility for Rs 14.25 crore with the 10 crore as collateral, the ED had alleged.
“The Rs 26 crore was received in two separate bank accounts of AIIPL as consultancy services. The inward remittances received by AIIPL from overseas (were) in violation of FDI guidelines,’’ the ED had said.
Following the ED probe, the Income Tax department had sent “investigative letters to more than 30 small regular donors’’, Amnesty said.
Amnesty first complained of being harassed by the ED after the “10-hour-long” October 2018 raid. “Most of the information and documents that were demanded during the search were already available in the public domain or filed with the relevant government authorities,” it said.
Subsequently, in 2019, the CBI had filed a case against AIIPL, the Indians for Amnesty International Trust, Amnesty International India Foundation Trust, Amnesty International South Asia Foundation. The ED had also issued a show cause notice to Amnesty alleging violations of the foreign exchange law to the tune of Rs 51 crore.
Denying the allegations, Kumar said, “All financial transactions between AIIPL and Amnesty International Limited UK or any other entity are made in full compliance with the Companies Act and other applicable laws… AIIPL has received payments for contractual services rendered to its clients. On the other hand, the operations of Indians for Amnesty International Trust are funded
solely by money raised within India… (from mainly) individual supporters (around
11,000 in number).”
“Amnesty has not been convicted. It has not even been put on trial in court,’’ former Amnesty executive director Aakar Patel said on social media.
The BJP attacked Amnesty for accusing government of going after it, noting that the NGO’s credentials had come under a cloud under the UPA as well.
Operating in 80 countries, Amnesty International has had run-ins with the governments of Turkey and Nigeria as well, but the only other country where its office was shut was in Russia in 2016.
While in June 2019, Amnesty had been denied permission to hold a press conference in Srinagar to release a report over use of the Public Safety Act in Jammu and Kashmir, later that year it had testified at the US Congressional hearing on the human rights situation in South Asia, with a special focus on the abrogation of Article 370. In November 2019, Amnesty had released a report on the role of foreigners’ tribunals in Assam. It has also taken up the Bhima Koregaon case, where activists have been held. Recently, Amnesty released reports on Kashmir one year after special status was revoked, and on the February Delhi riots.
(inputs by Esha Roy, Dipankar Ghose)