India on Thursday defended its actions after human rights group Amnesty International India halted work in the country, accusing the Narendra Modi government of having frozen its bank accounts as punishment for speaking out about alleged rights abuses, PTI reported.

The United States, the United Kingdom as well as the European Union have raised concerns about the government’s investigation into Amnesty International India.

“The NGOs [non-governmental organisations] are expected to adhere to all our laws including in respect of foreign funding just as they presumably would in other countries including the US and in the European Union,” Anurag Srivastava, the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, said during a virtual press briefing. “We also expect that other governments would not condone contravention of Indian laws by any entity.”

A senior US State Department official told The Hindu that the administration and the Congress have been “very, very closely” tracking the closure of Amnesty International in India. “On the situation involving Amnesty International in India…we’ve been very, very closely following this issue, not just in the administration, but I know that our members of Congress have as well,” the official said. “It has received attention at the highest levels of our government.”

The official also said the administration was concerned about obstacles to the work of civil society, both in India and across the world.

Meanwhile, the UK and the European Union had said that they have raised concerns through bilateral diplomatic channels as well. “The UK Minister for South Asia [Tariq Ahmed] and our Acting High Commissioner in New Delhi met Indian government representatives after Amnesty International India’s accounts were frozen, to emphasise the importance of organisations like this being able to continue their important work,” a British High Commission spokesperson told the newspaper.

Amnesty, one of the world’s best-known rights groups, on Tuesday announced that the Centre had blocked its accounts on September 10, forcing it to lay off its India staff after two years of “incessant witch hunt”.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning watchdog has denied allegations of financial wrongdoing. “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 a statement.

Hours later, the Ministry of Home Affairs said human rights were no excuse for breaking the law and alleged Amnesty had channeled large amounts of money to four entities in India in contravention of laws governing foreign financing. However, the ministry did not name the organisations.

The Centre also said that Amnesty’s assertions that it was being targeted for fighting for human rights were nothing but a “ploy to divert attention” from its alleged flouting of financial laws.

Rajat Khosla, a senior director at Amnesty International, on Thursday rebutted the charges. “This decision was not motivated by any question of law as the Indian authorities now claim,” he wrote in The Guardian. “It is not about Amnesty India’s sources of funding, which are entirely legitimate and involved no lawbreaking. This is punishment for standing up for humanity’s core values in the world’s largest democracy.”

He added that millions of people will no longer have a powerful voice to amplify their own calls for justice after Amnesty’s exit.

“These efforts are not part of some sinister plot to tarnish India’s reputation, as some government officials now comically allege. It is work that is inspired by India’s own traditions. India was one of the original UN member states to vote for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hansa Mehta, an Indian women’s rights champion, was among the select few who drafted the landmark document. As Indian courts have repeatedly stated, these same values are enshrined in India’s own constitution, which Mehta also helped draft, and are guaranteed by the many human rights treaties that India has voluntarily signed up to. Unapologetically standing up for these values, Amnesty India is a fully independent organisation, working for Indians and supported by Indian members.”

— Rajat Khosla