Businessman Acquitted in Murder of Jan Kuciak, Journalist in Slovakia

PEZINOK, Slovakia — After eight months of a closely watched trial, Marian Kocner — once one of Slovakia’s most powerful and well-connected businessmen — was acquitted on Thursday of ordering the murder of an investigative journalist who had threatened to expose a web of corruption involving the nation’s political and corporate elites and organized crime.

The verdict, handed down by a special criminal court that handles the country’s most serious cases, can be appealed in Slovakia’s Supreme Court. It is likely to draw scrutiny, because the murder ignited outrage across Slovakia and led to calls for reform.

The journalist, Jan Kuciak, 27, was shot and killed with his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, in February 2018 in his home in Velka Maca, a village outside Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava.

Their bodies were discovered days after the murder, and as evidence mounted that Mr. Kuciak was the target of an assassination, the killings set off the largest nationwide protests since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The protests brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets calling for a thorough investigation and condemning the systemic corruption that has long plagued the small Central European nation.

The victim’s families left the courtroom, many in tears, after the judge announced the verdict, saying they would appeal to the Supreme Court. “I’m very disappointed — I expected more of our justice system,” said Jozef Kuciak, the murdered journalist’s father. “But we’re definitely not giving up.”

The verdict came as a shock to many observers in Slovakia, and experts said it was likely to exacerbate the distrust that many Slovaks already have for the justice system and rule of law in their country.

“Despite the fact that I respect the decision of the court, I think justice was not found today,” said Michal Vasecka, a sociologist at the Bratislava Policy Institute. “And what is much worse, I think nobody ever looked for it in the first place.”

The murders shocked the country and led to calls for sweeping reforms.

“The murder of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova has opened a window of opportunities, reflected by the society in a mass movement,” said Erik Lastic, the head of the political science department at Comenius University in Bratislava.

But the acquittal of Mr. Kocner and one of his associates, Alena Zsuzsovs, is likely to attract renewed scrutiny to the system. Another man on trial for the crime — Tomas Szabo, a former soldier — was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“Mr. Kuciak opened the door — I shot him in the chest,” he said. Then he realized that another person, Ms. Kusnirova, was also entering the house.

According to prosecutors, a number of new criminal cases were opened based on the file, including an investigation into a former general prosecutor, a former government minister and prominent judges.

Vladimir Turan, the chief prosecutor in the case against Mr. Kocner, told the court in his final statement that while the murders might have brought much-needed insight into a web of corruption and power, the cost was too high.

“Most of all,” he said, “it is a case of a sacrifice of two innocent young people, asking for a life in a fairer country.”

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