PEZINOK: A Slovak court triggered shock on Thursday when it acquitted a well-connected businessman of ordering the murder of an investigative journalist in a case that has rocked the EU nation, exposing high-level political corruption and ultimately toppling the governing party.
Multi-millionaire Marian Kocner and two suspected accomplices had faced up to 25 years in prison for the double murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in February 2018.
“The crime was committed but it has not been proved that Marian Kocner and Alena Zsuzsova ordered the murder,” Judge Ruzena Sabova said in her verdict.
“The court therefore acquits the defendants,” she said, only sentencing Kocner to a 5,000-euro ($5,900) fine for illegal weapons possession as 60 bullets were found in his house.
State prosecutor Vladimir Turan said he sent an appeal of the acquittal to the Supreme Court shortly after it was handed down, while a lawyer for Kuciak’s family said the verdict was “factually incorrect”.
The victims, both 27, were gunned down at home gangland-style after Kuciak wrote several stories on graft and the shady dealings of high-powered entrepreneur Kocner, 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 Zsuzsova and Tomas Szabo.
While Zsuzsova was acquitted, Justice Sabova sentenced Szabo, the getaway driver, to 25 years in prison and to pay 70,000 euros ($83,000) each to the Kuciak and the Kusnirova 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,” Kusnirova’s mother Zlatica told reporters before leaving the courtroom in tears.
President Zuzana Caputova, 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.
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 Kocner’s acquittal “a major setback for justice and the fight against impunity”.
‘I AM NOT A MURDERER’
In his closing speech in July, Kocner 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. — AFP