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 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.
“It showed what had been hidden to us before, things we only whispered about, but there was never enough proof,” Mr. Lastic said. “Eventually, a lot of things that have been ignored for decades have finally been dealt with over the past two years.”
The longtime prime minister Robert Fico was forced to step down amid the protests, making way for a new government. The calls for a political overhaul also propelled Zuzana Caputova, an environmental activist and lawyer who had never previously held elected office, into the presidency in 2019.
Mr. Kocner has been the focus of several financial-crime investigations in the past two years. He was convicted in February in a separate case involving the defrauding of a U.S.-owned television network, and was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
But over the course of the seven-month-long trial, the court heard witness after witness testify to a nexus of political corruption and organized crime at the heart of the Kocner enterprise that also reflected the nation’s broader struggles.
In many ways, the testimony was an extension of the reporting Mr. Kuciak was pursuing when he was murdered. As one of a new breed of journalists who benefited from reforms Slovakia had adopted since joining the European Union in 2004, Mr. Kuciak specialized in working with open data and public sources.
The journalist, who worked for the news website Aktuality.sk, had uncovered several dirty businesses controlled by Mr. Kocner when in September 2017, six months before his murder, he received a phone call from the powerful businessman.
“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,” Mr. Kocner said in the call, according to a transcript published by Aktuality.sk. “I’m going to take a special interest in you, your mother, your father and your siblings.”
Mr. Kuciak reported the threat, but it was never investigated. Threats against journalists in Slovakia are common, and Mr. Kuciak’s family said they had never dreamed that anyone making a threat against him would follow through.
On the first day of the businessman’s trial, however, Miroslav Marcek, a former soldier, said he had been hired to make good on the threat.
“At first, we were supposed to kidnap and kill Jan Kuciak so that he couldn’t be found,” Mr. Marcek told the court. But he said that he had decided instead to kill the journalist in his home.
In a cold and detailed recounting of the events of the day, Mr. Marcek admitted to ambushing Mr. Kuciak and Ms. Kusnirova as they were returning from work.
“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.
“When he fell back, the door opened wider — she ran into the kitchen. I ran after her and hit her as well,” Mr. Marcek said.
He was sentenced to 23 years in prison for his role in the killings.
His testimony was bolstered by forensic evidence, witness testimony and a 25,000-page case file compiled by the prosecution that detailed a pattern of corruption, threats and bribery by Mr. Kocner.
A former intelligence officer, Peter Toth, told the court that he worked for Mr. Kocner as manager of a team that was used to uncover the “dirty secrets” of Slovak journalists and other enemies.
Mr. Kocner, however, maintained that he would never have ordered the murder of a journalist.
“I’m not a saint, but I’m not a murderer either,” he said in his final statement on July 31. “And I’m definitely not dumb enough to not realize what a murder of a journalist might cause.”
Mr. Kuciak’s murder set off several criminal investigations and spurred other reporters to pursue the threads of corruption that the journalist had started to pull at.
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project received thousands of pages of data collected by law enforcement during the murder investigation and has made it available for the news media in what it has named the “Kocner library” in Bratislava, intended to give journalists the tools to hold Slovakia’s justice system to account.
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.”