International NGO Amnesty shuts operations in India, alleges “witch-hunt” by Govt

Amnesty India, in a statement, said the organisation has been compelled to let go of staff in India and pause all its ongoing campaign and research work.

Amnesty halts India operations citing freezing of bank accounts as 'witch-hunt'
New Delhi: New Delhi: Following a move by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to freeze its bank accounts over alleged charges of money laundering, global NGO Amnesty International (AI) India has decided to shut its operations in the country. The organisation has called the move a “witch-hunt of human-right activists by the government, and a crackdown on dissent”.

According to officials, Amnesty India was granted prior permission for receiving foreign donations under FCRA on December 19, 2000. “Since then, it had applied for prior permission several times but was refused by the ministry.

“To circumvent the FCRA regulations, Amnesty UK remitted large amounts of money to four entities registered in India, by classifying it as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). A significant amount of foreign money was also remitted to Amnesty (India) without MHA’s approval under FCRA. This mala fide rerouting of money was in contravention of extant legal provisions...Previous government had also rejected the repeated applications of Amnesty to receive funds from overseas,” an official said, adding, “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 NGO’s accounts were first frozen in 2018 after which it approached the court and got reprieve. The accounts were sealed again as the home ministry said Amnesty India is not registered under FCRA, an official explained. Amnesty had run into trouble with UPA too, as their FCRA was cancelled by them in 2010. They restarted operations with a fresh application in 2012.

The ED said Amnesty International India Foundation Trust (AIIFT) was denied permission/ registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) by the MHA after which they resorted to bypass the FCRA by floating a commercial entity in the name of Amnesty International India Pvt Ltd (AIIPL) as a foreign direct investment (FDI), which is prohibited.

Amnesty is also under investigation by CBI, which registered a case in November last year on a complaint lodged by the Home Ministry for alleged violation of the provision of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 and the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The agency is yet to file a chargesheet.
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According to MHA, the commercial entity of Amnesty International India allegedly “received foreign funds through (the) commercial route to the extent of Rs 36 crore till 2018”. Of that, Rs 10 crore was received as long-term loan and placed in fixed deposits, while another Indian entity of Amnesty International Trust established an overdraft facility for Rs 14.25 crore with the Rs 10 crore as collateral. The remaining Rs 26 crore was received in two separate bank accounts of AIIPL as consultancy services.

In March 2018, Minister of State (Home) Kiren Rijiju told Parliament that Amnesty International India was among the 21 NGOs that were served questionnaires by his ministry as part of a probe under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act 2010. The FCRA unit of the Home Ministry subsequently referred Amnesty International India to the finance ministry for further investigation.

According to senior advocate Pavan Narang who specialises in economic offences, “It appears that based on RC registered by CBI under the provisions of FCRA & section 120B IPC, PMLA has also been invoked in this case as section 120B is a scheduled offence. Based on the allegations in the RC filed by CBI, ED after registering ECIR must have attached the bank accounts. So, prima facie it looks like valid action.”

“The MHA, in its report, said the foreign contribution came through in an unusual way, in the name of a private limited company. There is a circumvention of the route if you go by the government's report. Under the law, it is clear that if an NGO wants to receive foreign funding, it has to comply with the FCRA rules,” he added.
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Nearly 150 employees of the organisation will lose their jobs due to this, a senior official in the organisation told ET. Known for reporting on human rights violations, the organisation had recently brought out reports on the ground situation in J&K and North-East Delhi riots –– both of which implicated the Centre.

“These reports have provided fresh impetus to the establishment to harass and intimidate Amnesty International India through its investigative agencies,” the organisation said in a press release on Tuesday, announcing that it has halted its India operations. The RSS too, through its various reports, mainly on Kashmir and anti- CAA protests, had called for the closure of Amnesty alleging the NGO was promoting “anti-Hindu causes”.
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AI India’s statement said the organisation came to know that all its bank accounts were frozen by the Enforcement Directorate on September 10. Blaming ‘reprisal’ from the government, the NGO said, “This is the latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organisations by the Government of India over unfounded and motivated allegations.”

Apart from compiling reports on individuals at risk and gender-based violence, the organisation came up with four reports on the ground situation in J&K, including one on the excessive use of pellets. In 2015, an international researcher for the organisation working in J&K was deported for interviewing family members of about 58 AFSPA-related cases in J&K. Since last year, the organisation has not been allowed to release its reports in J&K.

“The IT department began sending investigative letters to more than 30 small regular donors. While the department did not find any irregularities, the investigating agencies’ move adversely affected the fundraising campaigns,” AI India added in its statement.

A campaigner, who has been associated with the organisation for several years, said the problems began in 2016 when the organisation started a “hate-tracker” recording all the incidents of lynchings in the country. In August 2016, a case of sedition was filed against Amnesty India over allegations that anti-India slogans were raised at one of its events. Three years later, a court ordered the charges to be dropped. Nearly 60 researchers were sacked from the organisation after the summons came, after which the operations of the organisation had to be scaled down, he added.

Biraj Patnaik, human rights activist and former Amnesty International's South Asia Regional Director told ET that closure of Amnesty India is a chilling message on the part of the government to anyone who dissents. “The government doesn’t want violations to human rights in the country to be spoken about. This is not just about one organisation, but about curbing dissent in media, academia and larger civil society.”

Julie Verhaar, the acting secretary general of Amnesty International, in a press statement called the move an “egregious and shameful act” by the Indian Government. “However, this does not mark the end of our firm commitment to, and engagement in, the struggle for human rights in India. The Amnesty movement is very proud of the vital work carried out by our outstanding colleagues in India regardless of the 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,” Verhaar added.

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