- Apprentice Lawyer
The Karnataka High Court on Wednesday permitted Amnesty International's India office, M/s Indians for Amnesty International Trust, to withdraw Rs. 60 lakh from its bank accounts partly allowing the prayed made in this regard by the international human rights body.
The interim order was passed by the Court in a plea challenging the communication issued by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to banks directing them to freeze the accounts held by the Amnesty Trust.
"The Petition is partly allowed, the petitioner is allowed to withdraw an amount of Rs 60 lakh from the bank accounts," the order passed by Justice PS Dinesh Kumar said.
The court had reserved its order in the case on December 9.
Earlier, the Court had asked ED whether it was willing to allow Amnesty International to pay statutory dues like salaries, tax payments, etc to the tune of Rs. 40 lakh per month, from the five bank accounts which have been frozen.
During that hearing, the Court had pushed for striking a balance between ED and the Amnesty Trust.
"Call your (ED) officer, (ASG) take your instruction. If you can strike a balance, we will close the matter accordingly, tomorrow morning", the Bench said.
When the matter was taken up for hearing previously, Senior Advocate Ravivarma Kumar had submitted that the petitioner trust was being harassed.
It was submitted that Amnesty International is only interested in working for human rights and that no reasons have been provided for freezing its accounts. Moreover, the matter was not taken before the adjudicating authority within 30 days, as prescribed. Therefore, the freezing of accounts is ultra vires Section 17(1)(A) of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) as well as provisions of The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (FCRA), Kumar had argued.
On the point of donations, it was contended that the same was for upholding human rights, and that Amnesty is a not-for-profit organisation. Even in the attachment order passed on November 26, there was no mention that any one of the accounts is tainted with a particular donation under the FCRA or PMLA, Kumar had vehemently pointed out.
Additional Solicitor General (ASG) MB Nargund, appearing for ED, had submitted that the petitioners have an effective alternate remedy under the statute before the adjudicating authority, and thereafter an appellate authority, before it can approach the High Court. In this light, it is not a fit case to grant any relief, he said.
Following the freezing of its bank accounts in September, Amnesty International had announced that it was stopping its operations in India.
The petition filed by Amnesty before the High Court stated that on October 25, 2018, the ED had conduced search and seizure at its office, allegedly on the basis of a search warrant.
It is the petitioner's case that being a public charitable trust registered in Bangalore, it does not receive any donations from any foreign sources and is not covered by the provisions of the PMLA.
Shortly thereafter, ED issued letters dated October 10 to various banks to stop debit operation with respect to the bank accounts of Amnesty. However, the organisation was not provided with copies of these letters, the plea said.
Owing to this, Amnesty moved the High Court, which passed an interim order in November, allowing it to utilize the amount for the payment of salaries, statutory, and other running expenses.
In December 2018, ED wrote wrote a letter to the Home Secretary, Government of India and also sent an interim report indicating that there was an FCRA violation by the petitioner trust.
It was further stated that the Secretary, after perusal of the interim report, directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct further investigation as per law.
The CBI subsequently registered an FIR against Amnesty and others, under Sections 11, 35, and 39 of the FCRA in 2019.
In August 2020, ED sent a notice to Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International (India), seeking his appearance under Section 50 of the PMLA. Similar notice was issued to various people associated with the organisation, all of whom co-operated with the investigation, the petition submitted.
ED then issued letters to South Indian Bank, IDBI Bank, HDFC Bank, Kotak Mahindra Bank, and Yes Bank (in which Amnesty was maintaining accounts) and directed that the accounts of the trust be put on debit freeze.
Aggrieved by the same, Amnesty approached the High Court, praying for the quashing of all communications addressed by ED to the banks directing them to put the accounts of Amnesty on debit freeze.