Amnesty International, which has been a watchdog of human rights in India, on Tuesday halted all its activities in India due to freezing of its accounts and said that it is being subjected to an "incessant witch-hunt" over unfounded and motivated allegations.
In a statement released Tuesday Amnesty International India said: "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. The organization has been compelled to let go of staff in India and pause all its ongoing campaign and research work."
Calling the freezing of their accounts, the "latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organizations by the Government of India," Amnesty said the charges leveled against it are unfounded and motivated.
Amnesty International India's bank accounts were blocked on similar grounds in 2018, then restored by a court order.
The attacks on Amnesty International India and other outspoken human rights organizations, activists and human rights defenders is only an extension of the various repressive policies and sustained assault by the government on those who speak truth to power, the statement said.
Julie Verhaar, Amnesty International's acting secretary general, said: "This is an egregious and shameful act by the Indian government, which forces us to cease the crucial human rights work of Amnesty International India for now."
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning group has been hounded by Indian investigators for the past two years, is regularly vilified in the government-friendly media and was finally forced to lay off staff members in what it described as a growing climate of repression, according to Shashank Bengali of Los Angeles Times.
The suspension of work by one of the world's best-known rights groups was the latest blow to freedom of expression and civil liberties in India, where critics say Modi's Hindu nationalist government has used its extensive powers to marginalize or silence independent voices - especially those speaking out for the rights of the Muslim minority. India, the world's second-most-populous country, is home to more than 100 million Muslims.
In October 2019, Amnesty officials testified before a congressional panel in Washington on human rights in Kashmir after India revoked the territory's special status earlier in the year. Two weeks later, Indian government investigators raided the group's offices in the southern city of Bangalore and the residence of one of its directors.
"The continuing crackdown on Amnesty International India over the last two years and the complete freezing of bank accounts is not accidental. 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 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," Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India was quoted as saying by the Quint.
"Treating human rights organizations like criminal enterprises and dissenting individuals as criminals without any credible evidence is a deliberate attempt by the Enforcement Directorate and Government of India to stoke a climate of fear and dismantle the critical voices in India. It reeks of fear and repression, ignores the human cost to this crackdown particularly during a pandemic and violates people's basic rights to freedom of speech and expression, assembly, and association guaranteed by the Indian Constitution and international human rights law," Avinash Kumar added.
Aakar Patel, who headed the group's India office from 2015 to 2019, said the government has portrayed human rights groups as enemies working to discredit the country, allegations that are propelled by a jingoistic media eager to label critics as "anti-nationals."
"The state uses every possible instrument and lever it has to attack, demonize, discredit and shut down civil society organizations," Patel said. "It has become an offense to work on rights."