PEZINOK, Slovakia (Reuters) – A politically connected Slovak businessman was acquitted on Thursday on charges he ordered the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, a case that shook the nation and brought down longtime premier Robert Fico.
The Special Criminal Court in Pezinok, north of the capital Bratislava, convicted another defendant of taking part in the murder but found no evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” that businessman Marian Kocner ordered the February 2018 killing.
The murder of Kuciak, 27, and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova forced Fico to step down as prime minister, sparked massive protests and ushered in a new government in March this year whose main election promise was to clean up corruption and sleaze.
Thursday’s judgment shocked the victims’ families, who left the courtroom in tears, and also drew criticism from political leaders.
The prosecutor who brought the charges appealed the verdict, sending the case to the country’s Supreme Court, which can uphold the ruling or order a new trial.
Kuciak and Kusnirova were gunned down in their home outside Bratislava, four months after the murder in Malta of another journalist investigating corruption, Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Bringing Kuciak’s killers to justice has been a test of Slovakia’s judicial and political system, long regarded as susceptible to corruption.
Prosecutors said Kocner, the subject of Kuciak’s reporting on graft involving politically connected entrepreneurs, had ordered the killing. Kocner denied the charge.
The court also acquitted Kocner’s acquaintance Alena Zsuzsova, who was accused of helping arrange the hit.
Shocked and in tears over the Kocner verdict, relatives of the victims left the courtroom as Judge Ruzena Sabova kept reading out details of the judgment.
“I had planned to go to Martinka and Jan’s grave to tell them that, finally, all who had done this to you will be punished. Unfortunately, as you see, this is impossible,” a weeping Zlatica Kusnirova, the mother of Martina, told Czech Television outside the court building.
Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, a former human rights lawyer, said she was stunned and that those responsible for the murder need to be held to account.
Prime Minister Igor Matovic was also critical, saying on Facebook: “It seems that the apparent plotters of murder want to escape the claws of justice… Let’s hope that justice awaits them both.”
The court sentenced another defendant, Tomas Szabo, to 25 years in prison for helping carry out the murders.
Two others have been convicted after admitting involvement. A former soldier who was the gunman got 23 years in prison, and the other 15 years.
Kocner, well known in Slovak business and political circles, has received a 19-year prison term in a separate case for forging 69 million euros in promissory notes. He has appealed that decision but remains in custody.
The murder investigation has forced the resignation of several politicians and judicial officials on account of their previous links to Kocner.
(Reporting by Radovan Stoklasa, and Jason Hovet and Robert Muller in Prague; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)