The powerful businessman charged with ordering the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Mariana Kusnirova was acquitted today due to lack of evidence.
Marian Kocner and his associate Alena Zsuzsova were found not guilty in what has been called a “surprising verdict”. The reason given for the acquittal was a lack of evidence.
Kuciak, an investigative journalist who was writing about Kocner at the time of his murder, was shot at home with his fiancee in February 2018. He was known for his in-depth reporting on the web of corruption involving Slovakia’s political and corporate elites. The murder sparked widespread anti-corruption protests in the country and the resignation of most of the incumbent cabinet including Prime Minister Fico.
The families of Kuciak and Kusnirova left the courtroom in tears after the verdict was read out. They’ve pledged to appeal in the Supreme Court.
“I’m very disappointed, I expected more from the justice system”, said Kuciak’s father Jozef.
“We are not giving up,” he added.
The verdict came as a shock to many both in Slovakia and abroad leading some to claim that the trial was nothing more than a show trial, considering the “compelling evidence” against Kocner. Tomas Szasbo, a former soldier was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison but Kocner and the alleged accomplice walked free. Previously, Zoltan Andrusko and Miroslav Marcek were also found guilty of their part in the murders.
Kocner was in prison for fraud carrying a sentence of 19 years when he was charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder. Proclaiming his innocence from the beginning, countless witnesses testified against him and linked him to far-reaching corruption involving organized crime and political corruption in the country.
Kuciak had reported on several dirty businesses controlled by Kocner and his links to the ruling party. He had previously received threats from Kocner. In one call, Kocner told him:
“You are being very personal, you are a bad person who is being tasked by someone, and I will find out who you’re working for…I’m going to take a special interest in you, your mother, your father, and your siblings.”
The journalist reported the threat but it was never investigated, much less prosecuted.
Marcek had previously testified how he was hired to make good on the threat by kidnapping and murdering him. Instead. he decided to just kill him in his home, ambushing the couple when they returned from work.
Kuciak’s father said he immediately suspected Kocner as being responsible. Andrusko also testified that Kocner had wanted to “get rid of other people”, not just Kuciak.
A “controversial businessman living on the edge of the law” and one with immense power and connections, Kuciak’s editor Peter Bardy previously said that if Kocner was responsible, it was because he was confident his “friends and friend’s friends would protect him from justice.”
The acquittal sent shockwaves through the media freedom community with most noting that “despite condemning evidence” the ruling was an example of impunity.
In a joint statement, they called it a “travesty of justice” and a “sad day for media freedom and the fight for an end to the impunity for the murder of journalists in Europe.”
Scott Griffin from the IPI who monitored the trial said the verdict repeated a tragic pattern where hitmen go to jail while those ultimately responsible remain free. He called for investigators and prosecutors to continue their work, push forward and ensure the case doesn’t become another cold statistic.