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12th Apr 2024

Slovak rule of law in spotlight over journalist murder

  • Martina Kušnírová and Ján Kuciak (Photo: Peter Tkac)

The Slovak Supreme Court is to decide on who killed journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018 after a lower court let the prime suspect off the hook on Thursday (3 September).

The evidence did not prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that businessman Marián Kočner ordered the killing, the Special Criminal Court in Pezinok, near Bratislava, ruled.

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It did fine Kočner €5,000 for illegal possession of firearms after police found 60 bullets in his home, amid allegations that the murder was linked to Italian organised crime and to Kuciak's investigation into mafia fraud of EU subsidies.

But the victims' family left the courtroom in tears, Reuters reported.

"It's clear that justice hasn't come to Slovakia yet," Zlatica Kušnírová, the mother of Kuciak's fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, told TV reporters.

"Someone powerful is still pulling the strings, and unfortunately we don't have those strings ... Our children are in the grave and Kočner is laughing," she said.

"I will do everything I can to find out why the court did not accept the evidence and freed the mobster [Kočner]," Péter Bardy, the editor-in-chief of Aktuality.sk, the news agency where the victim used to work, also said.

The case prompted mass protests and the fall of the Slovak government over corruption accusations two years ago.

And the new Slovak prime minister and president voiced dismay on Thursday in a sign of its ongoing political resonance.

"It seems that the apparent plotters of murder want to escape the claws of justice ... Let's hope that justice awaits them both," prime minister Igor Matovič said on Facebook, referring to Kočner and a suspected accomplice, who was also acquitted on Thursday.

"The court's verdict shocked me, and I need to understand its reasoning. I respect it, but I expect the search for justice will not end, and will continue in the Supreme Court," president Zuzana Čaputová said.

Justice will have a second chance after a Slovak prosecutor appealed on Thursday, propelling the case to the country's highest tribunal.

The Supreme Court can either uphold the Pezinok ruling or order a retrial.

And the final outcome in Slovakia is likely to send ripples beyond its borders, amid EU concern over erosion of rule of law in several peripheral and central European member states.

The family of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese investigative journalist who was murdered in 2017, for one, had looked to Slovakia as a model of law enforcement and political accountability, they previously told EUobserver.

"There is still work to do to ensure justice and prevent impunity [in Slovakia]," Dunja Mijatović, a human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, also said on Thursday in a first international reaction.

"This is owed to the families and colleagues of both victims, as well as to Slovak society at large," he said.

"The verdict is shocking. The acquittal of the accused mastermind and intermediary is evidence of a huge failure of the investigation bodies and the judiciary," Pavol Szalai, from the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders, added.

"We expected Slovakia to set a positive example in the prosecution and condemnation of the crimes against journalists. Instead, we remain in a situation of impunity," he said.

Croatian and Slovak courts seen as 'least independent'

Independence of courts in Austria, in Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherland and Denmark is seen as very, or fairly, good, according to a survey published with the EU Commission's annual justice scoreboard.

Corruption failures also highlighted in rule of law report

The European Commission's first report on the rule of law has raised concerns over the lack of effective anti-corruption efforts in some members sates - while it considers Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands have good governance measures.

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