By Ed Holt
BRATISLAVA, Sep 4 2020 – A Slovak businessman with alleged links to organised crime has been found not guilty of ordering the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak in a ruling that has left press freedom campaigners and politicians shocked.
Marian Kocner had been accused of ordering the killing of Kuciak, an investigative reporter with the Slovak news website Aktuality.sk.
Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova, both 27, were shot dead at Kuciak’s home in Velka Maca, 40 miles east of the capital Bratislava in February 2018. Self-confessed hired killer Miroslav Marcek, 37, had earlier this year pleaded guilty to murdering the couple and was sentenced to 23 years in jail.
But a court in Pezinok, north of the capital, ruled yesterday, Sept. 3, that there was not enough evidence to prove Kocner had ordered the murder. A woman also on trial for helping Kocner facilitate the murder, Alena Zsuszova, was acquitted, but a third person, Tomas Szabo, was found guilty of taking part in the killings.
“We are surprised and disappointed that after a long investigation and legal process that it has ended in this verdict. This is a sad day for press freedom in Slovakia and internationally,” Tom Gibson, EU Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told IPS.
“This has sent out a potentially very chilling signal to other journalists that they cannot be protected and cannot do their work safely,” he told IPS.
The murders of Kuciak and Kusnirova shocked Slovakia and led to the largest mass protests in the country since the fall of communism.
Prime Minister Robert Fico and Interior Minister Robert Kalinak were forced to resign, and the head of the police service later stepped down.
Police said that the murders were related to Kuciak’s work as an investigative journalist – Kuciak’s last story had exposed alleged links between Italian mafia and Fico’s Smer party – and the subsequent investigation uncovered alleged links between politicians, prosecutors, judges, and police officers and the people allegedly involved in the killings.
At the heart of these was Kocner, a controversial figure frequently linked to alleged serious criminals and who in a separate case was earlier this year sentenced to 19 years in jail for forging promissory notes.
Prosecutors argued in court that Kocner had ordered the killing in revenge for articles he had written about the multimillionaire’s business dealings.
Although not accused of pulling the trigger himself, for many Kocner was the central figure in the trial and a symbol of deep-rooted corruption at the highest levels of state.
And ahead of the verdict, journalists had said the outcome of the trial would be a watershed in Slovak history, in terms of both restoring public trust in a judiciary which the Kuciak murder investigation has shown to apparently be riddled with corruption, and in showing that same judiciary can clearly punish crimes designed to silence journalists.
But soon after the ruling, many local journalists said they had been left shocked and disappointed, while others said they were angry and could not understand how the court had reached its verdict.
But many said they simply felt the justice system had failed the victims and their families, as the people who ordered the murder had still not been brought to justice.
Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), describe the acquittals as “a huge failure of the investigation bodies and the judiciary”.
“We expected Slovakia to set a positive example regarding the prosecution and condemnation of crimes against journalists. Instead, we remain in a situation of impunity. Who ordered the killing of Jan Kuciak? Why was he killed? We should have a clear answer,” he said.
Regardless of what judicial failures may or may not have led to the decision, it is expected to have serious repercussions in Slovakia and other countries with some arguing it is a serious setback in battling impunity and ensuring justice.
Pavol Szalai, Head of European Union and Balkans Desk at Reporters Without Borders, told IPS: “This [verdict] is the biggest setback for freedom of the press in Europe since the murder itself. During this investigation and the court process Slovakia had been seen as an island of hope in Europe and today a strong signal of hope could have been sent out to other countries.
“But now, with the Slovak justice system unable to identify and bring to justice the person, or persons who ordered these murders despite massive public and political pressure to do so, how can other countries, like Serbia for example, be expected to do so?”
CPJ’s Gibson added: “This case was closely followed internationally and for European institutions especially this was an important case in terms of strengthening press freedom in Europe.
“One of the important things about Jan Kuciak’s murder was that he was a journalist working on investigative stories involving sensitive information and there are journalists in lots of other countries doing similar kind of work. This case was kind of symbol in terms of [highlighting] the need to protect journalists in other countries doing similar work.”
Prosecutors have appealed the court’s verdict and it will now go to the Supreme Court, which will either confirm the verdict or could send the case back to court to be heard again.
However, it is expected it will be months before the Supreme Court delivers any ruling and if the case is sent back to court, it could be years before another verdict is reached, which could again be appealed.
Some observers fear this could lead to a complete erosion of trust in the Slovak judiciary which has already been severely weakened by the court’s ruling.
Zuzana Petkova, a former journalist who worked on stories with Kuciak, told IPS: “This is not the end of the case, but if the people who ordered the murders are not put behind bars, Slovakia will drag this case around like a trauma, and there will be no trust left in the Slovak justice system. Already after today’s verdict there is far less trust in the system.”
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Slovakia, wrote in a Facebook post: “It must be a top priority for the Supreme Court and law enforcement bodies to prevent this case becoming the last nail in the coffin of the trust of the public in the judiciary and justice in Slovakia.”
Slovak politicians, many of whom openly admitted they had been shocked by the court’s ruling, urged people to believe that those behind the killings would eventually be brought to justice.
But some who have followed the trial are taking a more pessimistic view.
Drew Sullivan, Editor at the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, told IPS he had little hope that the people who ordered the killings would ever be convicted.
He told IPS: “The ruling was a huge disappointment although not completely unexpected. Experienced crime figures know how to isolate themselves from their crimes and there was no direct forensic evidence of [Kocner’s] involvement.
“However, there was testimony and clear circumstantial evidence of his involvement. If he had been a regular person, he’d have been found guilty based on witness testimony, but courts don’t accept the testimony of commoners against the ruling class. He is rich, powerful and murderous, and will cause problems for some time now in Slovakia.”