The case of a murdered investigative journalist delivered a new shock in Slovakia Thursday, September 3, as a high-profile businessman was acquitted of ordering the killing that ultimately exposed high-level political corruption and toppled the governing party.
Multi-millionaire Marian Kocner and two suspected accomplices had faced up to 25 years in prison for the double murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in February 2018.
“The crime was committed but it has not been proved that Marian Kocner and Alena Zsuzsova ordered the murder,” Judge Ruzena Sabova said in her verdict.
“The court therefore acquits the defendants,” she said, only sentencing Kocner to a 5,000-euro ($5,900) fine for illegal weapons possession as 60 bullets were found in his house.
State prosecutor Vladimir Turan said he has already appealed to the Supreme Court, while a lawyer for Kuciak’s family said the verdict was “factually incorrect”.
The victims, both 27, were gunned down at home after Kuciak wrote several stories on graft and the shady dealings of high-powered entrepreneur Kocner, who had ties to then senior government politicians.
Prosecutors demanded 25 years behind bars for the businessman, alleging he ordered Kuciak’s murder in revenge for articles detailing his various property crimes.
They wanted similar sentences for alleged accomplices Zsuzsova and Tomas Szabo.
While Zsuzsova was acquitted, Justice Sabova sentenced Szabo, the getaway driver, to 25 years in prison and to pay 70,000 euros ($83,000) each to the Kuciak and the Kusnirova families.
Kuciak’s father Jozef said he was “left paralyzed” by the verdict, adding that “we can only hope that justice will eventually prevail”.
“They’re guilty, I’m convinced about that. We’ll keep fighting,” Kusnirova’s mother Zlatica told reporters before leaving the courtroom in tears.
President Zuzana Caputova, a liberal elected on the back of an unprecedented wave of protests in the wake of the murders, said she was “shocked” by the verdict.
The case in Slovakia, a European Union country, is being followed closely by the European Commission, the 27-nation bloc’s executive arm.
“We understand that the judicial proceedings are not final yet,” European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova tweeted, urging those responsible to be brought to justice.
For her part, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic said on Twitter the verdict “shows that there is still work to do to ensure justice & prevent impunity.”
The Vienna-based International Press Institute dubbed Kocner’s acquittal “a major setback for justice and the fight against impunity” while global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders called it “shocking”.
‘I am not a murderer’
In his closing speech in July, Kocner denied murder.
“I am not a saint, but I am not a murderer either. I’m certainly not a fool who wouldn’t realize what a journalist’s murder would lead to,” he told the jury.
In June, he had addressed Kuciak’s father in court saying: “I’m sorry about what happened to your son, believe me, but I have nothing to do with it.”
Of the 5 suspects charged in the case, two had confessed their guilt and had already been sentenced.
Zoltan Andrusko, an intermediary in the murder plot, was sentenced to 15 years in jail in December 2019 after agreeing to a plea bargain.
Ex-soldier and contract killer Miroslav Marcek received a sentence of 23 years in April for gunning down the couple.
‘Faith in democracy’
Prosecutors argued that Andrusko served as a go-between, hiring gunmen Marcek and his cousin Szabo at the request of his friend Zsuzsova, who was in turn following Kocner’s orders.
The double murder plunged the country of 5.4 million people into an unprecedented crisis, triggering the largest demonstrations seen since the fall of communism.
Then-premier Robert Fico was forced to resign in March 2018 and was replaced by his populist left Smer-SD party deputy Peter Pellegrini.
But the opposition won this year’s election, paving the way for a new center-right government led by Igor Matovic from the anti-graft OLaNO party.
Bratislava-based political analyst Juraj Marusiak told AFP he expected the verdict “will shake Slovak citizens’ faith in democracy and the existence of justice”.