Indian govt’s exploiting FATF’s standards, int’l laws to target civil society groups: Amnesty

ISLAMABAD  -  The Indian government authorities are exploiting the recommendations of a global terrorism financing and money laundering watchdog (Financial Action Task Force, FATF) to target civil society groups and activists and deliberately hinder their work, Amnesty International said in its new briefing released to media.

“Weaponizing counter-terrorism: India’s exploitation of terrorism financing assessments to target civil society” revealed how the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—a global body responsible for tackling terrorism financing and money laundering—had been abused by the Indian authorities to bring in draconian laws in a coordinated campaign to stifle the non-profit sector.

These laws are in turn used to bring terrorism-related charges and, amongst other things, to prevent organisations and activists from accessing essential funds.

“Under the guise of combating terrorism, the Indian government has leveraged the Financial Action Task Force’s recommendations to tighten its arsenal of financial and counter- terrorism laws which are routinely misused to target and silence critics. The FATF must hold the Indian authorities accountable for the persistent weaponization of its recommendations,” said Aakar Patel, chair of the board at Amnesty International India.

“By abusing these laws, the authorities in India have failed to comply with both FATF standards and international human rights law.”

Non-governmental organisations in India require a “foreign contribution licence” to access foreign funds as established by the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA).

The introduction of this bill in 2006 coincided with India becoming an observer state of the FATF.

Later in 2010, amendments were made to the act to improve India’s ‘non-compliant’ status.

Since then, however, and specifically in the last ten years, more than 20,600 NGOs have had their licences cancelled with nearly 6,000 of these cancellations occurring since the beginning of 2022.

In a survey by Amnesty International, 11 out of 16 NGOs (working on issues relating to minorities, marginalised groups and climate change) confirmed the arbitrary renunciation of their foreign contribution licences through suspensions, cancellations, and non-renewals. The organisations said that the authorities provided only vague reasons, including accusing them of “bringing disrepute to public institutions”, “working against public or national interest” or alluding to their human rights work.

Most of the groups Amnesty International spoke to said they have had to reduce their staff by 50 to 80 percent, drastically affecting the scope of their work. 

“Almost all our programmes have been shut down … [We are] surviving just to fight the legal cases that have been filed against us,” one activist said.

The 2020 and earlier amendments to the FCRA, however, do not conform with FATF’s Recommendation 8, which requires that laws and regulations target only those Non-Profit Organisations that a country has identified --through a careful, targeted “risk-based” analysis-- as vulnerable to terrorism financing abuse.

None of the NGOs Amnesty International spoke with were contacted for a “risk-assessment” by the Indian government, despite FATF having specifically highlighted the lack of outreach in its 2010 and 2013 Mutual Evaluation Reports. Such actions also do not meet the guidelines laid down by the FATF’s interpretative note on Recommendation 8 which aims to minimise the unintended consequences faced by the non-profit sector by calling for specific and targeted counter-terrorism measures.

The enactment of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA) and the 2012 amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), India’s main counter-terrorism law, were among the pre-conditions to India becoming the 34th member of the FATF. 

However, United Nations special rapporteurs have repeatedly called out the contentious and overbroad provisions of UAPA which both violate international human rights law and standards and contradict the FATF’s own guiding principles.

The Indian authorities have ignored all such calls and have continued to apply these laws in a discriminatory manner against dissenting voices such as Muslim student activist Umar Khalid, Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez, journalist Irfan Mehraj and 16 others (in the Bhima Koregaon case), ten of whom continue to be detained since 2018 without trial on allegations of ‘funding terrorism’, amongst other charges. 

The PMLA has also been used to target Amnesty International forcing the organisation to halt its operations in the country in September 2020.

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