The Slovak businessman Marian Kocner has been acquitted for a second time of ordering the killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak five years ago, despite his assistant receiving a 25-year prison sentence for organising the hit.
Announced on Friday in the Specialised Criminal Court in Pezinok, the verdict sent shock waves through Slovakia, just as the 2018 shooting did. But while the horrific crime brought down populist strongman Robert Fico, who had turned the country into a “mafia state,” and saw a clean-up launched, the acquittal will provoke deep concern over the country’s democratic system and rule of law.
The evidence that Kocner had ordered the 2018 shooting of Kuciak over his work uncovering corrupt schemes had appeared solid. Following a surprise acquittal in June 2021 on procedural grounds, a retrial was ordered by the Supreme Court.
However, it had not been proven that Kocner committed the crime, ruled the court, which was established in the aftermath of the murder to hear politically- and mob-linked cases. The oligarch was also cleared of ordering the murder of three prosecutors in 2017-18. However, he wasn’t set free, as he is already serving a 19-year sentence for a 69-million-euro fraud. He told the court as the trial ended last week that: “I am not a saint, but I am not a murderer.”
However, his assistant Alena Zsuzsová was found guilty of organising Kuciak’s murder, as well as planning hits on two prosecutors. Already serving a 21-year sentence for organising the 2010 murder of a regional official for a political rival, she received another 25-year sentence.
All parties have the opportunity to appeal the verdicts.
While the immediate impact of the ruthless murder was to revive Slovak democracy and kick start efforts to reform a state captured by crooked officials and organised crime, the verdict suggests that what advances have been made remain under threat.
The merciless shooting of Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírova at their home on a dark February night in 2018 triggered the largest wave of anti-government protests in Slovakia’s modern history. The murder was quickly linked to Kuciak’s work investigating sleazy financial dealings that linked the Italian mob with local oligarchs and high-ranking members of then-prime minister Robert Fico’s government.
It wasn’t long before the scandal toppled the populist leader of the left-leaning Smer party, who had led Slovakia since 2012. Fico’s protégé, Peter Pellegrini, was appointed in his place.
Suspicion quickly mounted that Kocner, a businessman with a ruthless reputation whose activities the journalist had reported on, was behind the killing.
As the investigation proceeded, Slovakia was shocked to discover just how deeply Kocner’s tentacles reached into the heart of the state. Decoded messages revealed that dozens of officials, including the country’s police chief, the deputy justice minister, and senior judges were at his beck and call.
This helped ensure a loss for Smer in elections in 2020, as support for the anti-corruption OlaNO party surged. Widespread reform of the judicial and law enforcement bodies, and a purge of corrupt officials, was quickly launched.
Even Fico was charged last year, accused of having run an organised crime group from the prime minister’s office. However, parliament surprisingly refused to lift his immunity from prosecution.
The shock felt around the country was even bigger in September 2020 when Kocner was acquitted of masterminding the murders in an initial trial, despite having the finger pointed at him by the shooter, driver and middleman, all of whom are now in prison.
Having successfully appealed for a retrial on procedural grounds, the prosecution wrapped the charges in with accusations that Kocner also attempted to have three state prosecutors murdered in 2017-18.
Prosecutors had asked for life sentences for both the oligarch and his sidekick Zsuzsova, who is already serving 21 years for other crimes.
Source: Balkan Insight