Citing a "reprisal" by the Indian government against its human rights work, Amnesty International said Tuesday that it had to lay off staff and halt operations in India.
In a statement, the watchdog accused India's Hindu nationalist government of "an incessant witch-hunt" against human rights organizations that have revealed wrongdoing by Indian authorities in recent years. Amnesty International's latest investigations in India have focused on alleged human rights abuses in India's only Muslim-majority region, Kashmir, as well as on alleged misconduct by Indian police in last February's Delhi riots that killed dozens of mostly Muslim civilians.
The group said its work in India has come to "a grinding halt" after it learned on Sept. 10 that the Indian government froze its bank accounts.
"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, said in the statement.
Later Tuesday, the Indian government issued a statement calling Amnesty International's claims "unfortunate, exaggerated and far from the truth." It accuses Amnesty International of illegally routing money to India through its U.K. branch for several years.
"All the glossy statements about humanitarian work and speaking truth to power are nothing but a ploy to divert attention from their activities which were in clear contravention of laid down Indian laws," the government said.
This is not the first time Indian authorities have taken action against Amnesty International. In 2016, they charged the group with sedition for holding an event in the southern city of Bengaluru, related to Kashmir.
In 2018, Indian authorities raided Amnesty International's Delhi office and froze its bank accounts. They have long accused the group of violating rules on foreign funding, including as far back as 2009, before Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party won power nationally.
Amnesty International denies any wrongdoing. It has temporarily shut its India operations and then resumed them several times in the past.
Amid fears of rising authoritarianism around the world, Tuesday's events put India in the same category as Russia, where Amnesty International says its Moscow office was seized by the Russian government in 2016. The group's local director in Turkey has also faced detention and trial.
In September, Amnesty International USA submitted a statement to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, accusing Indian authorities of harassing journalists during the pandemic, violating Kashmiris' rights and failing to investigate abuses by Delhi police.
The acting secretary-general of Amnesty International's worldwide operations, Julie Verhaar, issued a separate statement calling the closure of its India operations an "egregious and shameful act by the Indian Government."
"However, this does not mark the end of our firm commitment to, and engagement in, the struggle for human rights in India," Verhaar was quoted as saying. "We will be working resolutely to determine how Amnesty International can continue to play our part within the human rights movement in India for years to come."
NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report.