A powerful, politically-connected businessman accused of ordering the 2018 murders of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, has been acquitted by a court in Slovakia.
A panel of judges in Pezinok, a town some 18 kilometers (11 miles) northeast of the capital, Bratislava, ruled on Thursday that prosecutors had failed to prove Marián Kočner and his co-accused, Alena Zsuzsova, had ordered the assassinations.
Justice Ruzena Sabova ordered Kočner to pay a $5,912 (5,000 euros) fine after 60 bullets were found at his house but acquitted him of the murder charges, citing lack of evidence.
Kuciak, 27, was the first journalist ever murdered in Slovakia’s 25 years as an independent state. Huge public protests followed, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets.
Alongside fellow Slovak reporter Pavla Holcova, Kuciak was working on stories related to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ global collaborative investigations, the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers at the time of his death.
Kočner had allegedly threatened Kuciak over the journalist’s investigations into his links with high-ranking politicians and public officials.
The widespread demonstrations that convulsed the central European country after the couple were found shot to death at their apartment led to the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico and his entire Cabinet. The national police chief was also dismissed.
According to a New York Times report on Thursday’s verdict, many members of the victims’ families left the courtroom in tears, vowing to appeal the ruling to the country’s 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.”
Following his acquittal, Kočner returned to jail. Earlier this year he was sentenced to 19 years’ imprisonment for forging promissory notes.
A former soldier, Tomas Szabo, has already been sentenced to 25 years in jail for his part in the killings. Another man, Zoltán Andruskó, who admitted to acting as the go-between for those that ordered the murder and those that carried it out, was sentenced to 15 years as part of a plea-bargain deal last year.