The Specialised Criminal Court in Pezinok, Slovakia, acquitted controversial businessman Marian Kočner in the case of ordering the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. The court also acquitted Alena Zsuzsová, who, according to the plaintiff, mediated the crime.
The verdict in the most-watched trial in modern Slovak history caused a shock among the families of the victims as well as Slovak politicians and journalists.
The prosecutor announced that he would appeal the verdict, so the Slovak Supreme Court will now deal with the case.
Růžena Sabová, the head of the court senate in Pezinok, which deals with the most serious criminal cases, said that no direct evidence had been presented to convict Kočner of the crime.
“According to the principle of the presumption of innocence, if after evaluating the available evidence, reasonable doubt remains, the accused is considered innocent,” said Sabová.
However, the court did not find that there was any other motive behind the murder than the journalist’s work, and it also did not doubt that Kočner was afraid of Kuciak´s investigations.
Of the three defendants waiting for the decision of the court, only Tomáš Szabó, who assisted the murderer, was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Kočner left the court with only a fine for illegal arms but will remain in custody due to an unrelated case of counterfeit bills. Police also arrested Zsuzsová immediately after her release from custody, where she had been in relation to the Kuciak murder case, as she is being prosecuted in other cases as well.
The other two of the five accused in the case, including the murderer, had previously pled guilty and were sentenced in a separate trial. Former soldier Miroslav Marček confessed to the murder, and the court sentenced him to 23 years in prison in April this year. After his arrest, the mediator of the murder, Zoltán Andruskó, cooperated with the police and was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year.
The only defendant present at Thursday´s court hearing was Kočner. However, his reaction to the verdict could not be seen because, like everyone else, he had a face mask on.
The parents of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová left the courtroom shortly after the verdict was delivered, before the judge read the justification of the decision. Zlatica Kušnírová, Kušnírová’s mother, lamented that the rule of justice has not yet begun in Slovakia.
“Someone powerful still pulls the strings and we, unfortunately, don’t have those strings in our hands […] Our children are in the grave, and Kočner is laughing,” she said.
Jozef Kuciak, the father of the murdered reporter, hopes that the Supreme Court will deliver a different verdict.
The murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée resulted in large-scale anti-government demonstrations and a political crisis in Slovakia in 2018. The then PM Robert Fico even resigned because of the killings.
The current head of the Slovak government, Igor Matovič, stated in response to the latest verdict that “so far, it seems that the obvious architects of the murder are escaping justice […] Let’s believe that justice will wait for them.”
President Zuzana Čaputová pointed out that the parents of both of the victims and everyone in Slovakia deserve to see those who ordered and mediated this crime punished.
“The court’s verdict shocked me, and I need to hear the reasoning behind it. I respect it, but I expect that the quest for justice will not end and will continue in the Supreme Court,” Čaputová wrote on Facebook.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) head Christophe Deloire wrote that the organization “expected Slovakia to set a positive example regarding the prosecution and condemnation of crimes against journalists. Instead, we remain in a situation of impunity.”
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 #jankuciak? Why was he killed? We should have a clear answer. pic.twitter.com/HN3EF4Ayg1
— Christophe Deloire (@cdeloire) September 3, 2020
According to the International Press Institute (IPI), the acquittal of the suspected mastermind of Kuciak’s murder is a major setback for justice and the fight against impunity.
? The acquittal of suspected mastermind Marian Kočner in the murder of #Slovak journalist #JanKuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová is a major setback for justice and the fight against impunity, IPI said today.
Read our full statement here ⬇️https://t.co/USaLedviy2
— IPI – The Global Network for Press Freedom (@globalfreemedia) September 3, 2020
The trial in Pezinok took place under strict security measures, restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and heavy emotions.
Major world media reported on the verdict as well, with Germany’s Die Welt writing that by delivering such a verdict, Slovakia had become a mafia state.
Title image: Marian Kočner is surrounded by armed police officers in the courtroom after a trial against him in Pezinok, Slovakia, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. The judges acquitted Marian Kočner, accused of masterminding the slayings of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, who were shot dead in their home on Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)