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Rights groups denounce acquittal of former Serbian security officers accused of killing a journalist

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Media rights groups and opposition campaigners on Saturday condemned a Serbian appeals court ruling that acquitted four former intelligence officers who were jailed for the killing of a prominent journalist and newspaper publisher who was fiercely critical of the government in Belgrade.

Slavko Curuvija was shot dead at the entrance to his Belgrade apartment during the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia over its crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists.

His killing became a symbol of the long struggle for a free press in the Balkan nation that is formally seeking membership in the European Union.

The ruling by the Appeals Court on Friday overturned its previous verdict in 2021 that convicted the four men and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms. The court in Belgrade said that the accusations against the four “have not been proven beyond a doubt.”

Independent media organizations were shocked by the acquittal and warned that critical journalists in Serbia still face threats because of their work.

The government of populist President Aleksandar Vucic — who was information minister at the time of Curuvija’s death — maintains tight control over mainstream media outlets.

“I am shocked by this scandalous ruling, it sends a frightening message to all journalists and all people who are fighting for freedom of the speech,” said Jelena Curuvija, the victim's daughter who runs a foundation that promotes media freedom.

“This verdict is a proof that the dark forces of the 1990s still rule this country,” she said. “This is a land of darkness.”

A media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Teresa Ribeiro, expressed her dismay over the ruling.

“The fact that this case still remains unresolved, almost 25 years after this courageous journalist was murdered, is very disturbing,” Ribeiro said in a statement. “Impunity for this heinous crime is not only extremely painful for Curuvija’s family and colleagues, but also deeply disappointing for the whole of Serbian society.”

Curuvija was regarded as an enemy of the state by the regime of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The state-run media controlled by Milosevic’s regime accused him of ‘’inviting’’ NATO to bomb Serbia. The 1999 NATO intervention in Serbia was in response to Milosevic’s bloody crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008.

Serbian government officials have repeatedly denied any pressure on non-government media.

The U.S. ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill also expressed concern over the court ruling.

“Disheartening to see that justice and accountability for the killers of Slavko Curuvija remain elusive, even 25 years after his murder,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “A sad day for journalism.”