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New foreign funding restrictions imposed on Lawyers Collective, a prominent human rights organization, violate constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and association, Amnesty International India said today.

On June 1, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs suspended for 180 days Lawyers Collective’s license to receive foreign funding. The Ministry stated that the NGO had violated several provisions of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), primarily by using foreign funding for purposes other than for what it was received. It also asked Lawyers Collective to explain in 30 days why its license should not be permanently cancelled.

“There is no doubt that the government is being vindictive. Lawyers Collective is being targeted because its office-bearers have taken on the government in a range of cases. The FCRA allegations are clearly a pretext to silence these dissenting voices,” said Aakar Patel, Executive Director, Amnesty International India.

Lawyers Collective is known for its pioneering work on violence against women, LGBT rights and the right to health. Its trustees include lawyers Indira Jaising, a former Additional Solicitor-General of India and a former member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and Anand Grover, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.

The lawyers have independently handled several important human rights cases, including representing activists seeking justice for the 2002 Gujarat violence and extrajudicial executions in the state.

Indira Jaising told Amnesty International India: “I certainly believe that this is selective targeting and certainly related to the work Anand Grover and I do, not only at Lawyers Collective but also as human rights professionals. The funding has been used for the work for which it was related. There is no question of being intimidated.

We are definitely going to respond and challenge this notice in court.”

The FCRA has been used by successive governments as a political tool to suppress dissent and harass groups critical of government views and actions. Its use of broad and vague terms such as ‘public interest’ and ‘national interest’ have left it open to abuse as a de facto system of pre-authorization of the use of foreign funding. In September 2015, the central government cancelled the FCRA registration of Greenpeace India and suspended the FCRA registration of an NGO run by activists Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand.

In April 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association reiterated that the ability to access foreign funding is an integral part of the right to freedom of association, and said that the FCRA restrictions were not in conformity with international law, principles and standards.

“The FCRA provides a convenient cover for the government to go after NGOs it does not like,” said Aakar Patel.

“NGOs can of course be required to be transparent and accountable about their activities and sources of funding. But laws like the FCRA should not be used to obstruct organizations from receiving foreign funding for legitimate work. Civil society organisations in India must not have to bear more restrictions than other entities, such as private companies, which also receive foreign funding.

“The suspension of Lawyers Collective’s FCRA registration should be immediately revoked, and steps taken towards the repeal of the FCRA. The government must end its clampdown on civil society.”