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Serbia launches investigation into finances of rights groups and 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
In this Friday, April 5, 2019, photo, Serbia's finance minister Sinisa Mali, left, speaks with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade, Serbia   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
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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 investigation seeks to access private bank data from several groups and individuals. The ministry denies that it is a targeted attack on critics, saying these are 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 an 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 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.”

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.