PRAGUE (AP) — A court in Slovakia has acquitted for a second time a businessman accused of masterminding the 2018 slaying of an investigative journalist and his fiancée.
The Specialized Criminal Court in Pezinok, near the capital, Bratislava, which handles Slovakia’s most serious cases, ruled Friday that Marian Kocner was not guilty of murdering Jan Kuciak, who had written about him in the past, and Martina Kusnirova, both aged 27.
The crime shocked the country and caused the government to fall.
The court said “it was not proven” that Kocner was the mastermind.
The International Press Institute, an international media freedom group based in Vienna, called the acquittal “shocking.” It said on Twitter it “represents another devastating blow to the fight for justice for Jan Kuciak & his fiancée Martina Kusnirova. Our thoughts are with their families. The fight for justice will continue.”
However, Kocner’s associate, Alena Zsuzsova, who acted as an intermediary, was convicted over her role in the killings and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The case is not over yet as both the prosecution and the defendants can appeal.
Prosecutors had requested life imprisonment for both defendants.
The parents of Kuciak and Kusnirova left the courtroom before the reading of the sentence was completed.
“There’s no logic in it,” the journalist’s father, Jozef Kuciak, told reporters. “I don’t get it at all.”
“Of course, we’ll appeal,” Zlata Kusnirova, the mother of Martina said. “It’s impossible what happened,” she said. “It’s a shame for justice.”
Kuciak was shot in the chest and Kusnirova was shot in the head at their home in the town of Velka Maca, east of Bratislava, on Feb. 21, 2018.
Kocner allegedly threatened the journalist following publication of a story about his business dealings, prosecutors said. Overall, Kuciak published nine stories about Kocner.
The killings prompted major street protests unseen since the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. The ensuing political crisis led to the collapse of a coalition government headed by populist Prime Minister Robert Fico.
Kuciak had been investigating possible government corruption when he was killed.
It was the second time the Pezinok court ruled in the case.
Originally, it acquitted Kocner in September 2020, saying there was not enough evidence for the convictions. The prosecutors appealed.
Slovakia’s Supreme Court dismissed the acquittal in June 2021, saying the lower court did not properly assess available evidence when it cleared Kocner and Zsuzsova and ordering a retrial.
Three other defendants were previously convicted and sentenced to stiff prison terms.
One of them, former soldier Miroslav Marcek, pleaded guilty to shooting Kuciak and Kusnirova and was sentenced to 23 years in prison in April 2020. Prosecutors said Kocner paid Marcek to carry out the killings.
In the meantime, Kocner was sentenced to 19 years in prison in a separate forgery case while Zsuzsova received 21 years in prison for her role in the killing of a mayor.
Those verdicts are final.
In December 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Kocner and six of his businesses for threatening Kuciak.