A court in Pezinok, Slovakia, acquitted controversial businessman Marian Kočner of ordering the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. Alena Zsuzsová, who, according to the plaintiff, helped plan the crime, was also acquitted.
In the most-watched trial in modern Slovak history, the verdict caused a shock among the survivors and Slovak politicians and journalists’ outrage. The prosecutor announced that he would appeal the judgment so that the Slovak Supreme Court would hear the case.
The head of the criminal senate of the court in Pezinok, which deals with the most severe criminal cases, said in the reasoning of the decision that no direct evidence had been presented to convict Kočner.
“It follows from the principle of the presumption of innocence that if, after evaluating the available evidence, doubts remain regarding the assessment of guilt, the accused is considered innocent,” said Růžena Sabová, chairwoman of the Criminal Chamber.
However, the court did not find anything other than the journalist’s work behind the murder order, and it also did not doubt that Kočner was afraid of Kuciak.
Of the three defendants affected by today’s verdict, the court found only Tomáš Szabó guilty, who, according to the plaintiff, was an assassin’s assistant and to whom the senate imposed 25 years in prison. Kočner left the court only with a fine for illegal armaments. Still, he will remain in custody due to an unrelated case of counterfeiting of bills of exchange, in which he was so far illegally sentenced to a long sentence in February this year. The police arrested Zsuzs immediately after her release from custody because she is being prosecuted in other cases.
The other two of the five initially accused in the Kuciak case, including the murderer himself, had previously pleaded guilty and were tried separately. 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 last year he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Today’s verdict was heard in the courtroom only by Kočner, with considerable interest from media representatives. His feelings could not be read from his face, because, like everyone else, he had a face mask on. Kuciak and Kušnírová’s parents left the courtroom shortly after reading the verdict and before justifying it. Zlatica Kušnírová, Martina Kušnírová’s mother, lamented that justice had not yet prevailed in Slovakia. “Still someone powerful pulls strings, and we, unfortunately, do not have the threads … Our children (are) in the grave, and Kočner laughs,” she said and cried. Jozef Kuciak, the father of the murdered reporter, hopes that the Supreme Court will decide otherwise.
The murder of Kuciak and his fiancée resulted in large-scale anti-government demonstrations and a political crisis in Slovakia at the end of 2018. To resolve it, Robert Fico resigned as Prime Minister.
The current head of the Slovak government, Igor Matovič, stated in response to today’s verdict that “so far it seems that the obvious architects of the murder want to escape justice … let’s believe that justice will wait for them”. President Zuzana Čaputová pointed out that the parents of both murdered people and everyone in Slovakia deserve that responsibility is inferred towards those who ordered and mediated this act.
Former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, who replaced Fica as prime minister, noted that the only way to achieve justice in a democracy is to respect the courts’ decisions as an independent branch of state power. However, there will inevitably be doubt about the verdict, he added.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) chief Christophe Deloire wrote that “we expected Slovakia to lead by example in investigating and condemning crimes committed against journalists; instead, we remain in a situation of impunity.” According to the International Press Institute, the acquittal of the alleged architect of Kuciak’s murder is a massive blow to justice and the fight against impunity.
Today’s trial in Pezinok was accompanied by strict security measures, restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and intense emotions. The world’s media reported the verdict, and the German Die Welt wrote after its delivery that Slovakia had become a mafia state with the scandalous liberation of Kočner