India’s Enforcement Directorate (ED), a government agency that investigates financial crimes, has conducted raids at the regional office of Amnesty International in what activists claim are efforts to silence dissent.
Indian media reports said the raids at the premises of the rights watchdog in Bengaluru in southern Karnataka state began at 1:30pm (8:30 GMT) on Thursday afternoon and were ongoing.
A statement released by ED said its searches were conducted for alleged violation of foreign direct investment guidelines by Amnesty India. The agency accused the rights group of bypassing rules regarding foreign donations by “floating a commercial entity”.
Amnesty denied those accussations saying its structure is compliant with Indian laws.
“After a crackdown on a number of NGOs, Enforcement Directorate hits at Amnesty. The 10 hour long raid conducted at our Bengaluru office ended at midnight,” Amnesty India said in a statement.
“Our staff fully cooperated with officials. We reiterate, our structure is compliant with Indian laws. ED raid on Amnesty India shows a disturbing pattern of the government silencing organisations that question power.”
Over 5 ED officials raided Amnesty’s Bengaluru office. Ordered employees to not leave, shut their laptops and searched their desks. Employees were not allowed to use their phones to call friends and families. #CrackdownOnAmnesty
The action against Amnesty came within weeks of similar raids at the offices of Greenpeace India by the ED, which accused the charity of violating laws related to foreign funds.
On Wednesday, Amnesty urged the Indian government to initiate “effective, independent and impartial investigation” into the October 21 deaths of seven civilians in a blast in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Amnesty India has campaigned against arbitrary detention of human rights activists and leaders of marginalised groups including Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad in recent months.
Indian newspaper, The Hindu, in a report published in August, quoted federal officials saying they were probing whether some entities based in the UK infused funds into Amnesty’s India unit allegedly through commercial channels in violation of Indian laws.
Nikhil Dey at Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a peasant and workers’ organisation in the western state of Rajasthan, described the raids as “bad signs for Indian democracy”.
“There is a pattern to this. The government doesn’t want any focus on human rights issues. Amnesty is a global organisation of some repute and these critical voices are very important,” Dey told Al Jazeera, calling the ED action “disturbing”.
“India prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy. So, scrutiny of its human rights record is important, especially with this government that is brazenly attempting to muzzle civil society,” he added.
Targeting rights groups
Since assuming office in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has turned the spotlight on international rights groups and charities, accusing some such as Greenpeace of trying to hamper national projects on social and environmental grounds.
In 2015, the Modi government withdrew permission from Greenpeace to receive foreign funding, saying the money was used to block industrial projects.
India’s Supreme Court criticises police for arresting activists
In recent years, the Indian government has cancelled the registration of nearly 9,000 groups for allegedly failing to declare details of overseas donations.
Activists warn the right-wing government’s efforts to silence criticism and dissent in the world’s largest democracy are growing stronger ahead of an impending general election, due by May next year.
“Why are businesses allowed to bring in all kinds of foreign money and even donate to political parties, while organisations that help the oppressed in this country are being raided and attacked?” asked Dey.