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Amnesty launches case challenging standards watchdog's order that it return €137,000

The money was donated to the group in order to fund activities around the Eighth Amendment.

A demonstration in the Amnesty
A demonstration in the Amnesty "My Body My Rights" campaign.
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL HAS brought a High Court challenge against Standards in Public Office Commission’s (SIPO) order that it return a Swiss-based foundation’s donation of €137,000 for a campaign to increase support for a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

The donation was made in August 2015 by the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a body founded by businessman George Soros, for the Irish-based strand of Amnesty’s international “My Body, My Rights” campaign.

The objectives of the campaign included increasing support among politicians for the holding of a referendum on the Eighth Amendment and provide a human rights compliant abortion framework.

The campaign included lobbying politicians and organising events and seminars for politicians before the 2016 General Election aimed at having the Eighth Amendment repealed.

Last November, SIPO directed Amnesty to return the monies after finding the donation was prohibited under Section 23 A2 of the 1997 Electoral Act after deeming it to be a donation for political purposes.

Amnesty denies the funds were used for political purposes and says SIPO’s decision is flawed, and should be set aside.

As a result Amnesty International Irish Section CLG has brought proceedings against both SIPO, Ireland and the Attorney General where it seeks to quash SIPO’s decision.

It also seeks several declarations including that SIPO has acted in error of law, in excess of its jurisdiction, misdirected itself as to the interpretation of Electoral, has failed to give adequate reasons for its decision and has acted irrationally and unreasonably.

It further seeks declarations that it should not have to repay the monies, that SIPO has breached both Articles 40. 3 and 43 of the Irish Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and EU law.

Complex

Brian Murray SC, instructed by Daragh O’Donovan of Orpen Franks Solicitors, for Amnesty said the challenge raises many complex legal issues concerning the interpretation of the Electoral Act.

“Amnesty and other NGOs are extremely concerned about the implications of the decision,” counsel said.

Counsel said the purpose of the donation was to fund Amnesty’s 2016 campaign whose purpose included to increase public support for repealing the Eighth Amendment, collaborate with other groups working on access to safe and legal abortion.

No referendum on the Eighth was planned or had been called when the donation was made, counsel said.

Counsel said in 2016 media reports on leaked documents from OSF suggested that the funding was part of a strategy to force the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. SIPO then wrote to Amnesty referring to obligations under the Electoral Act.

Counsel said Amnesty told SIPO the donation was not for political purposes.

However the Commission said received information and confirmation from the foreign donor that the monies were for explicitly political purposes.

OSF has disputed that it provided written confirmation that the donation was for political purposes, and said that SIPO seemed to be basing it decision on an internal document for discussion that was made public after OSF was hacked by Russians, counsel said.

Amnesty fears the matter could be referred to the gardaí, leading to a possible criminal prosecution, if if does not return the monies.

It also fears reputational damage and financial hardship as Amnesty does not have any significant reserves. The return of the monies would have to come out of its current budget for 2018, counsel added.

Permission to bring the challenge was granted, on an ex-parte basis, by Mr Justice Seamus Noonan.

The judge made the matter returnable to a date in April.

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