Marian Kocner, the Slovak fraudster accused of ordering the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kusnirova in 2018, was once again acquitted on May 19, in a grave blow to the government’s anti-corruption drive.
The first murder of an investigative journalist rocked Slovakia, sparking huge demonstrations and the resignation of populist premier Robert Fico, who critics blamed for capturing the police and judicial system and allowing corrupt businessmen such as Kocner to thrive.
Kocner had already been acquitted in 2020 but the Supreme Court ordered the case to be reopened in 2021.
The parents of Kuciak and Kusnirova left the courtroom in tears following Kocner’s acquittal. “There’s no logic in it,” the journalist’s father, Jozef Kuciak, told reporters, AP reported. “I don’t get it at all.”
The verdict in the retrial at the Specialised Criminal Court in Pezinok was also hugely disappointing for journalists, many of whom had been close colleagues of Kuciak before he was gunned down at his home by a paid assassin.
“I don’t know whether the court needs a notary verification of Marian Kocner ordering this murder or a video directly from the murder act,” investigative journalist Marek Vagovic was quoted as saying by the Slovak public broadcaster RTVS.
Only two of the three judges agreed on the acquittal of Kocner of ordering the murder of Kuciak, and of plotting the murder of state prosecutors Maros Zilinka and Peter Sufliarsky and Daniel Lipsic.
All three judges, however, agreed on the guilty verdict for his girlfriend Alena Zsuzsova, who arranged the murders. She was also found guilty of plotting to murder Zilinka and Sufliarsky. Her accomplice Dusan Kracina was sentenced for eight years for plotting Zilinka’s murder. Another suspect Darko Dragic was acquitted of plotting to murder Lipsic.
Zsuzsova was handed a 25-year prison term and ordered to compensate the families of the murdered couple €160,000.
The state and Zsuzsova are set to appeal the verdicts to the Supreme Court. Both Kocner and Zsuzsova are already serving long sentences for other offences, for which they were convicted after the collapse of the system of legal protection they had built up of bribed politicians, judges, prosecutors and policemen. Kocner is serving 19 years in the TV Markiza fraud case, where he forged a promissory note for €69mn. Zsuzsova is serving 21 years for ordering the murder of Hurbanov Mayor László Basternák.
Previously, hit man Miroslav Marcek and driver Tomas Szabo were each sentenced to 25-year unconditional prison terms for carrying out the murders for €50,000. Middle man Zoltan Andrusko, who recruited the assassins, was sentenced to a 15-year unconditional prison term after co-operating with investigators.
In their closing statements, state prosecutors described Kocner as an exceptionally dangerous man who lacked any remorse. "Any regret is absent from Kočner; the desire for property and the desire for revenge are his basic characteristics, he has no moral inhibitions," said Daniel Mikulas, prosecutor of the Special Prosecutors Office (USP).
Kocner was accused of organising the murder of Kuciak to punish him for investigating his corrupt business dealings. He had allegedly paid associates to follow and photograph Kuciak – these photos were later shown to the assassins. Five months earlier he had threatened Kuciak, telling him over the phone, "I will start paying special attention to you and your person, your mother, your father and your siblings".
Kocner was also accused of trying to organise the murder of prosecutors who he saw as a threat.
The verdict is being seen as a major blow to the crackdown on the endemic corruption of Fico's years in power. A coalition of centre-right parties was elected in 2020 to fight corruption but it collapsed because of infighting at the end of last year and has now been replaced by a technocratic cabinet appointed by President Zuzana Caputova.
“Part of the Slovak society has viewed this process as a symbol of the defeat of the people who, thanks to the capture of the state power on all levels, felt untouchable,” award-winning investigative journalist Eva Mihockova told bne Intellinews.
Mihockova said she found it “paradoxical” that Zsuzsova was sentenced and Kocner acquitted as Zsuzsova acted “in a subordinate position towards Kocner” and “did not have the motivation to have the young journalist shot” without “Kocner’s order”.
Mihockova explained to bne Intellinews that the court did not find sufficient evidence to sentence Kocner “even though an already sentenced intermediary Zoltan Andrusko identified both Zsuzsova and Kocner” in a previous trial as ordering the murder.
The verdicts come as Fico and his Smer-SD party are once again in the lead of the polls ahead of the snap elections on September 30. Fico has moved to openly pro-Kremlin positions and is capitalising on the energy and cost of living crises, combined with the general discontent with the ongoing political turmoil. If he forms a government, Fico is widely expected to block the ongoing anti-corruption drive, which has led to the prosecution of police, prosecutors and judges, many of them accused of being connected to Kocner.
“Disappointment from the political change, war in Ukraine, and vulgarisation of Slovak politics have overshadowed the legacy of Jan Kuciak, and lost its mobilisation power towards Slovak voters,” said Mihockova.
Journalist organisations, including Reporters without Borders, issued a statement on May 19 deploring the verdict: "This repeated failure to secure the conviction of the suspected mastermind is another damaging setback in the fight against impunity for the murder of journalists in Slovakia, and in Europe. This case follows an all-too-common pattern in which the hitmen and facilitators involved in such crimes are put behind bars while the suspected masterminds who ordered the murder evade justice."