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Rights group Amnesty halts India operations, says facing witch-hunt

epa04826387 (L-R) Senior Policy Advisor of Amnesty International India Shailesh Rai, Senior Director, Global Operations, International Secretariat, Amnesty International Minar Pimple, Research Manager of Amnesty International India Divya Iyer and Executive Director of Amnesty International India Aakar Patel launch the new report on the human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, during a press conference in New Delhi, India, 01 July 2015. The report is based on in-depth research in Jammu and Kashmir, including interviews with 58 family members of victims of alleged human right violations by security forces, a press release said. EPA/RAJAT GUPTA

NEW DELHI, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Human rights group Amnesty International stopped its work in India on Tuesday saying the government had frozen its bank accounts in the latest action against it for speaking out about rights violations.

The group said it had laid off staff after facing a crackdown over the past two years over allegations of financial wrongdoing that it said were baseless.

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

Its bank accounts were frozen on Sept. 10, it said.

Amnesty had highlighted rights violations in recent months in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region as well as what it said was a lack of police accountability during riots in Delhi in February, and the government had sought to punish it, it said.

There was no immediate response from government spokesmen to requests for comment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has faced accusations that it is clamping down on dissent, including in Muslim-majority Kashmir, where insurgents have battled government forces for more than 30 years.

Critics also say the government is pushing a Hindu-first agenda, undermining the secular foundations of India’s democracy and raising fears among its 170 million Muslim minority.

The government denies any bias against any community.

Opposition politician Shashi Tharoor said Amnesty’s exit was a blow.

“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,” he said on Twitter.

Critics of the organization, however, cheered its departure, posting comments on Twitter such as “good riddance” and accusing the group of turning a blind eye to hate crimes against Hindus elsewhere in the region.

The group has in the past fallen foul of Indian governments, including one run by the centrist Congress party, and this would be the fifth time it had ceased operations, its former head, Aakar Patel, said.

‘FREEZING DISSENT’

Amnesty said that this time, the federal financial crimes investigation agency, the Enforcement Directorate, had targeted it because of its work on human rights.

“The constant harassment by government agencies including the Enforcement Directorate is a result of our unequivocal calls for transparency in the government,” said Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India.

“For a movement that has done nothing but raise its voices against injustice, this latest attack is akin to freezing dissent,” he said.

Amnesty and other groups have accused police of complicity in the riots in Delhi in which at least 50 people were killed, most of them Muslims.

Police denied the allegation.

The government has been tightening oversight of foreign non-governmental groups (NGOs), they say.

Last year, the environmental group Greenpeace said it had to shut two offices in India and had asked many staff to leave because of a block on its bank account after accusations of illegal donations.

Last week, the government enacted changes in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Bill setting new conditions for organisations. Some NGOs said the measures seeking tighter control of funds were aimed at creating an air of distrust.

Kumar said more than four million Indians had supported Amnesty’s work in the last eight years and about 100,000 Indians had donated money. (Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Additional reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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