Serbia cracks down on rights groups, government critics

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In this Friday, April 5, 2019, photo, Serbia's finance minister Sinisa Mali, left, speaks with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade, Serbia. Serbia's finance ministry has launched an investigation into money laundering and financing of terrorism against dozens of rights organizations, independent journalists and opposition politicians who have been exposing alleged government corruption. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

BELGRADE – Serbia's finance ministry has launched a probe into possible money laundering and financing of terrorism against dozens of rights groups, independent journalists and opposition politicians who have criticized alleged government corruption and anti-democratic policies.

The ministry has denied that the investigation, which sought access to private bank data of several groups and individuals, is a targeted attack on critics, saying it is part of regular proceedings.

“These are regular activities aimed at assessing the risk of terrorism financing," said Zeljko Radovanovic, acting director of the state authority against money laundering.

The civic groups have demanded that the Serbian government immediately ceases what they say is abuse of the mechanism against money laundering and financing terrorism to intimidate organizations which act as checks and balances for the executive.

They have accused the populist government of trying to silence critics amid mounting discontent over the increasingly autocratic rule of President Aleksandar Vucic and his government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis in the Balkan state.

Slobodan Georgiev, the head of TV Newsmax Adria Serbia which is on the list of those who are under investigation, said the move is “a way of criminalizing people.”

“We are now all placed in the same basket as criminals,” he said.

The finance ministry has denied the claims.

Radovanovic, the finance ministry official, told the state Tanjug news agency that the body has also investigated four acting government ministers, adding that non-government groups should not be treated as “holy cows.”

Serbia, which formally wants to join the European Union, has been forging close political, military and economic ties with Russia and China. Critics say Vucic is leading the Balkan state toward Russian President Vladimir Putin-style authoritarian rule.

In its latest report, rights watchdog Freedom House ranked Serbia as a “hybrid regime” rather than a democracy because of declining standards in governance, justice, elections and media freedom.