Slovak business tycoon Marian Kočner has been acquitted in a court retrial for the murder of Aktuality.sk investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová, in what international press freedom organisations have called a “debacle of the judicial procedure”.
While the court argued that there was not enough evidence for his guilty verdict, Kočner’s close associate Alena Zsuzsova, whose relationship with the businessman was described as her “lifeline” by the court, was found guilty of ordering the assassination, which took place on 21 February 2018.
The acquittal came after the Slovak Supreme Court mandated retrial of a September 2020 trial, as the original Pezinok Court did not properly assess available evidence when it cleared Kočner and Zsuzsova. Despite the retrial, the court chose to ignore expert opinions indicating hidden messages between the two within encrypted chats on the app Threema.
Besides Kuciak and Kušnírová’s assassination, Zsuzsova was found guilty of ordering two other murders and is serving 25 years in prison. Kočner was also found guilty in a separate forgery case and is serving 19 years.
The court stated that its verdict was not an assessment of Kočner’s innocence but rather based on a lack of evidence, rubbishing expert linguistic analysis indicating communication between Kočner and Zsuzsova through cyphers.
Media freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called the acquittal a “debacle of the judicial procedure”, saying “RSF deplores the failed judicial proceedings against Marian Kocner. We continue seeking full justice for this crime, which has undermined press freedom in Europe.”
⚡️Killing of journalist #JanKuciak in #Slovakia: Although one mastermind has been convicted, RSF deplores the failed judicial proceedings against Marian Kocner. We continue seeking full justice for this crime, which has undermined #pressfreedom in Europe.👇https://t.co/HsTU08hLu8
— RSF (@RSF_inter) May 19, 2023
The International Press Institute has described the acquittal as a “shock” and vowed to continue the fight for full justice for the slain journalist and his fiancé. IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said the acquittal was “a devastating reminder that the battle against impunity is an uphill one”, with former IPI board member and editor-in-chief of the daily Slovak newspaper SME Beata Balogova saying “The verdict has still left the story of the murder of Jan Kuciak unfinished”.
In a joint statement, ARTICLE 19 Europe, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), International Press Institute (IPI), OBC Transeuropa (OBCT), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) expressed their “profound disappointment” at the acquittal.
In their statement, they said it “represents another devastating blow to the fight for full justice for Ján and Martina’s killing”, adding that the case “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.”
Kuciak and Kušnírová’s parents left the Pezinok courtroom before the sentence was read out completely, with Kuciak’s father, Jozef saying “There’s no logic to it, I don’t get it at all”, according to a report by The Guardian.
The family will now be filing an appeal to the sentence, which will be heard in front of the Slovak Supreme Court.
According to a report by Aktuality.sk, the news portal which Kuciak worked for, Peter Kubina, the family’s lawyer said that “this battle must be fought only by the prosecutors and legal representatives of the a at the Supreme Court. They can afford to question today’s verdict… the only social order that the judiciary has to fulfil is independence.”