UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan, and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2020 expressing grave concern over the manner in which Amnesty International’s work in India was forcibly ended by the government.
The UN Special Rapporteurs had offered the government 60 days to respond to the letter written on October 21, 2020. They warned that the communication would be made public after that time.
The rapporteurs write about “Information we have received concerning allegations of police and judicial harassment of the NGO Amnesty International India.” They point out that they had earlier written to the government in December 2018; and a reply was received more than a year later, in December 2019. “Unfortunately the reply of your Excellency’s Government did not entail any substantive responses to the questions posed in the communication, but only stated that the matter was under investigation.”
The rapporteurs note that a communication on the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 1999, was earlier sent in 2015 and 2016.
On October 25, 2018, offices of Amnesty International were subjected to a search by the Enforcement Directorate, “an investigation agency under the Ministry of Finance which primarily enforces the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999 and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002.”
Subsequently, the government froze the organization’s bank accounts and the Department of Income Tax sent letters to more than 30 donors of the organization, which was accused of bypassing FCRA after being denied permission to receive at least Rs36 crore in foreign funds, allegedly violating FCRA.
The rapporteurs note that in April 2020, the cyber crime unit of Lucknow police sought information from Twitter about the organization’s Twitter account. “According to information received, Lucknow police did not disclose the offence committed by AI India.” The request for information was justified on the basis that it “may create riots-like situation in the country”.
Two days prior to this, AI India had called on the government of UP to stop intimidating journalists through the use of repressive laws. “Twitter reportedly did not provide any information to Lucknow police,” the letter states.
The rapporteurs note that in November 2019, offices and the residence of the director of AI were searched by CBI officers, based on the FIR from the Ministry of Home Affairs alleging violation of FCRA. In September 2020, employees of AI realized that bank accounts were completely frozen. Amnesty International was forced to stop all work and let all staff go.
The rapporteurs note that no formal charges were received from government authorities by October 2020 (when their letter was sent), even though searches had been carried out two years prior. The two writ petitions of 2018 are still pending for final disposal. The remainder of the funds has not yet been made available to AI.
“We would like to express our serious concern at the freezing of AI India and Amnesty India Pvt Ltd’s bank accounts under the FCRA, a law that we have previously considered to be incompatible with human rights standards. As highlighted in our previous communications, the application of the FCRA to human rights organizations creates a stigmatizing and chilling effect on the legitimate work these organizations do. Furthermore, we are deeply troubled with the actions of the Enforcement Directorate and different government’s departments seem to have taken place as retaliation for AI’s outspoken reports on Jammu and Kashmir as well as the Delhi riots of February 2020.”
The rapporteurs note that the “temporal proximity of AI India’s campaign actions and the respective retributive actions of the government against this organization are a strong indication that the Governments tried to intimidate, muzzle and punish AI India for its reporting on and advocacy against human rights violations.”
A list of questions was sent, seeking information on the legal basis for the freezing of the bank accounts, timeline for the proceedings in court, how the government ensures that FCRA is compatible with human rights norms and standards, and measures taken to ensure that enforcement of FCRA does not limit the freedom of association or of expression.
Rosmma Thomas is an independent journalist