Amnesty suspends Indian operations due to govt ‘witch-hunt’

Updated 30 Sep 2020

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A file photo of the Amnesty International office in Bengaluru, India. — AFP
A file photo of the Amnesty International office in Bengaluru, India. — AFP

NEW DELHI: Amnesty International has suspended its Indian operations after its bank accounts were frozen in what it called a government “witch-hunt” against rights groups.

Government critics within civil society organisations and the media have long complained of harassment in the world’s biggest democracy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist administration, something which it denies.

Amnesty said that as of earlier this month it could no longer access its bank accounts in India, forcing it to let go of staff and “pause” all ongoing campaign and research work.

“This is the latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organisations by the Government of India over unfounded and motivated allegations,” it said in a statement.

It said the freezing of its accounts was “no accident” after it issued a series of reports alleging “grave human rights violations” by police in deadly sectarian riots in New Delhi in February, and by security forces in India-held Kashmir.

Shehryar Afridi urges UN to provide immediate security, assistance to HR groups working in India

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

But the government on Tuesday accused Amnesty of “illegal practices” involving the transfer of “large amounts of money” from Amnesty UK to India, something which also created problems with the previous administration.

“This bipartisan and purely legal approach towards Amnesty, under different governments, makes it clear that the entire fault lies in the dubious processes adopted by Amnesty to secure funds for its operations,” it said.

“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.” But India’s opposition criticised the government.

“India’s stature as a liberal democracy with free institutions, including media & civil society organisations, accounted for much of its soft power in the world. Actions like this both undermine our reputation as a democracy & vitiate our soft power,” Shashi Tharoor from the Congress party tweeted. David Griffiths from Amnesty’s head office in London said the group intended to fight the government via legal means.

“We have nothing to hide. We invite the government to show us the evidence and to bring charges against us so that we can defend it in court,” Griffiths told AFP.

‘Continuing crackdown’ and ‘harassment’

Iftikhar A. Khan in Islamabad adds: Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Kashmir Shehryar Khan Afridi has expressed grave concern over reports of ‘continuing crackdown’ and ‘harassment’ of Amnesty International’s officials by the Indian government.

He said Amnesty International’s operations had been brought to a standstill just because the organisation had largely covered India’s systematic genocide of Dalits, Christians, Muslims and Kashmiri Muslims.

Amnesty and other groups have accused police of complicity in riots in Delhi in which at least 50 people, most of them Muslims, were killed and also its reports have uncovered Indian forces’ atrocities in India-held Kashmir.

Mr Afridi, while talking to reporters here, said that the human rights watchdog had blamed the right-wing government of India for freezing the bank account of its India branch, forcing it to lay off staff and stop campaign and research work in India.

He said it was an alarming sign that the Indian government was running an ‘incessant witch-hunt’ campaign against human rights organisations over ‘unfounded and motivated’ allegations.

Mr Afridi said the Amnesty officials claimed that they had been facing a ‘crackdown’ over the past two years over ‘baseless allegations’ of financial wrongdoing.

The Kashmir committee chairman said he was shocked to learn from Amnesty’s officials in India that the constant harassment by Indian government agencies, including the Enforcement Directorate, was a result of its unequivocal calls for transparency in the government, more recently for accountability of the Delhi police and the government of India regarding grave human rights violations in Delhi riots and Jammu & Kashmir.

Mr Afridi urged the United Nations Human Rights Council and other international human rights groups to raise their voice over the ongoing witch-hunt of Amnesty International and other human rights watchdogs working in India and asked them to take immediate measures to provide adequate and urgent security to officials of the rights bodies and groups working in India.

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2020