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October 22, 2020
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Amnesty International to halt India operations

By Yogita Limaye
BBC News, Mumbai

Amnesty International logoimage copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe watchdog says it has been forced to shut its India operations

Amnesty International says it has been forced to halt its India operations due to “reprisal” from the government.

The watchdog has also accused the government of indulging in a “witch-hunt of human rights organisations.”

Amnesty says its bank accounts have been frozen and it’s been forced to lay off staff in the country, and suspend all its campaign and research work.

The government is yet to respond to these allegations.

“We are facing a rather unprecedented situation in India. Amnesty International India has been facing an onslaught of attacks, bullying and harassment by the government in a very systematic manner,” Rajat Khosla, the group’s senior director of research, advocacy and policy, told the BBC.

“This is all down to the human rights work that we were doing and the government not wanting to answer questions we raised, whether it’s in terms of our investigations into the Delhi riots, or the silencing of voices in Jammu and Kashmir.”

In a report released last month,the group said police in the Indian capital, Delhi, committed human rights violations during deadly religious riots between Hindus and Muslims in February.

Rebutting the claims, the Delhi police told The Hindu newspaper that Amnesty’s report was “lopsided, biased and malicious”.

Earlier in August, on the first anniversary of the revocation of Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status, Amnesty had called for the release of all detained political leaders, activists and journalists, and for the resumption of high-speed internet services in the region.

In 2019, the watchdog testified before the US Foreign Affairs Committee during a hearing on human rights in South Asia, where it highlighted its findings on arbitrary detentions, and the use of excessive force and torture in Kashmir.

media captionDelhi riots: ‘No-one who saw the photo thought I would survive’

Amnesty has also repeatedly condemned what it says is a crackdown on dissent in India.

The group, which has faced scrutiny by different government agencies over the past few years, says freezing of its bank accounts earlier this month was the final straw.

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.

In October 2018, the group’s offices in the southern city of Bangalore were raided by the Enforcement Directorate, which investigates financial crimes. Its accounts were frozen then too, but Amnesty says it was able to access them after seeking a court’s intervention.

In early 2019, the group says dozens of its small donors were sent letters by the country’s income tax department. And later in the same year, Amnesty’s offices were raided again, this time by the Central Bureau of Investigation, based on a case registered by India’s home affairs ministry.

Kashmiri protesters clash with government forces in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir in 2018.

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionIndia has had a fraught relationship with Kashmir for decades

Successive governments in India have been wary of foreign funded non-profits, particularly human rights organisations.

Amnesty had previously suspended its India operations in 2009, because of what the group said was repeated rejection of their licence to receive funds from overseas. India was then ruled by a Congress-led government, which sits in opposition now.

Over the years rules surrounding receiving foreign funds have been tightened, and thousands of non-profits have been banned from receiving money from overseas.

The current government has previously stated that Amnesty was being investigated over suspicions that the group was violating Indian laws surrounding foreign funding.

“That’s a blatant lie. Amnesty India is in full compliance of all domestic legal requirements and international legal requirements as well,” Mr Khosla told the BBC.

The group’s announcement comes amid growing concern over the state of free speech in India. The development, activists say, could dent India’s long-standing reputation of being a thriving democracy.

“India does not stand in good company with these moves it is making. We operate in over 70 countries, and the only other country previously that we had been forced to shut operations in was Russia in 2016,” says Mr Khosla. “I hope people around the world sit up and take notice. We are doing this with a very heavy heart, and a deep sense of anguish and grief.”

The group says it will continue to fight its legal cases in India.

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