Slovak police yesterday (1 March) detained several Italian businessmen named by murdered journalist Ján Kuciak in an explosive report on alleged high-level corruption linked to the Italian mafia, as his killing sparked fresh demonstrations in the EU state.
Prosecutors in Italy suggested that the notorious Calabrian crime syndicate the ‘Ndrangheta may have been behind the killing of Kuciak, 27, and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, who were found shot dead at their home near Bratislava on Sunday.
Slovak police commander Tibor Gaspar told reporters that the individuals taken into custody during raids in the eastern town of Michalovice were “persons mentioned” by Kuciak in connection with the “Italian track”.
Slovak media reported that among the seven held was Italian businessman Antonino Vadala — the owner of several companies — and some of his relatives, alleged by Kuciak to have links to ‘Ndrangheta and contacts in the Slovak government.
The prosecutor in the Italian region of Calabria, Nicola Gratteri, told Italian radio meanwhile that “it is likely that the families of the Calabrian mafia are behind the murder” of Kuciak.
“It is obvious that ‘Ndrangheta is capable of this,” he said.
He was echoed by Italy’s anti-mafia prosecutor, Gaetano Paci, who called the journalist’s murder a “milestone”.
“It shows that the ‘Ndrangheta is starting to be afraid of those who want to show a truth that many are struggling to see,” he told Italy’s Rai News TV.
The murder has sparked international condemnation and concerns about media freedom and corruption in Slovakia.
Kuciak’s last, unfinished investigative report raised possible political links to Italian businessmen with alleged ties to Calabria’s notorious mafia supposedly operating in eastern Slovakia.
His article posthumously published Wednesday by aktuality.sk focused on fraud cases allegedly involving Vadala and said he was linked to leftist Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s entourage.
In an angry rebuke of the allegations, Fico showed reporters stacks of cash totalling one million euros ($1.2-million) — a reward he has offered for information that could lead to the killers.
Candlelit anti-corruption protests and memorials are planned for Friday across Slovakia and in Prague, London and The Hague, among other cities.
Fico accused the opposition Wednesday of using the murder as a “political tool to get people out on the streets and gain power”.
Thousands of mostly young Slovaks joined anti-graft rallies last year demanding the dismissal of senior government and police officials for alleged foot-dragging on fighting corruption.
Transparency International ranks Slovakia as the seventh most corrupt EU member.
The European Commission asked Bratislava on Thursday to account for the use of EU farm subsidies after Kuciak’s report alleged that some of the suspects police detained on Thursday had been skimming funds.
‘Mafia in Slovakia’
In his posthumously published report, Kuciak wrote: “Italians with ties to the mafia have found a second home in Slovakia. They started doing business, receiving subsidies, drawing EU funds, but especially building relationships with influential people in politics — even in the government office of the Slovak Republic.”
Mária Trošková, a close Fico aide, and his national security council officer Viliam Jasaň, both of whom allegedly had past dealings with Vadala, said Wednesday they had resigned for the duration of the murder investigation, but “categorically rejected” any wrongdoing.
A 30 ans, Mária Trošková a déjà tout d’un personnage de roman. Elle est l’une des protagonistes de l’enquête inachevée du journaliste slovaque Jan Kuciak assassiné avec sa compagne Martina Kušnírová 🔽 pic.twitter.com/QRbEeY7bHm
— Jean-Luc Testault (@jltestault) March 1, 2018
Kuciak alleged that Trošková, 30, had ties to Vadala, purportedly involved with ‘Ndrangheta.
Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák said on Facebook on Thursday that Italian police, Europol, the FBI and Scotland Yard pledged to help Slovak investigators.
But echoing opposition parties, the leader of Most–Híd, a junior partner in Fico’s three-party coalition, issued an ultimatum on Thursday demanding Kaliňák resign.
Béla Bugár said Fico was “aware of the seriousness of the situation” while Most–Híd insiders speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP the party would consider quitting the coalition should Kaliňák stay.
‘End of an era’
The Kuciak shooting followed the October car bomb murder of campaigning Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia — who exposed crime and corruption on the Mediterranean island.
Marek Vagovič, the head of the team of investigative journalists at aktuality.sk, told AFP that Kuciak’s murder was “the end of an era” in Slovakia, saying he expected greater pressure on investigator to investigate and prosecute “serious crimes” like corruption.
Journalists investigating the same story as Kuciak said they have obtained police protection.
Fico, who once told journalists they were “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes”, has vowed his government is committed to the “protection of freedom of speech and the safety of journalists”.