The case of a murdered investigative journalist delivered a new shock in Slovakia Thursday (3 September), 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 Marián Kočner and two suspected accomplices had faced up to 25 years in prison for the double murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová in February 2018.
“The crime was committed but it has not been proved that Marián Kočner and Alena Zsuzsová ordered the murder,” Judge Ružena Sabová said in her verdict.
“The court therefore acquits the defendants,” she said, only sentencing Kočner to a €5,000 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 Kočner, 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 Zsuzsová and Tomas Szabo.
While Zsuzsová was acquitted, Justice Sabová sentenced Szabo, the getaway driver, to 25 years in prison and to pay €70,000 each to the Kuciak and the Kušnírová families.
Kuciak’s father Jozef said he was “left paralysed” 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,” Kušnírová’s mother Zlatica told reporters before leaving the courtroom in tears.
President Zuzana Čaputová, 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 Věra Jourová 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 Kočner’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, Kočner denied murder.
“I am not a saint, but I am not a murderer either. I’m certainly not a fool who wouldn’t realise 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 five 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 Zsuzsová, who was in turn following Kočner’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 centre-right government led by Igor Matovič 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”.