(CN) – The opening of a trial where a politically connected Slovakian businessman stands accused of ordering the murder of a young investigative journalist in 2018 is shining more light on the entanglement of politics and corruption in Europe.
The closely watched trial over the killing of Jan Kuciak, a 27-year-old Slovak journalist, started Monday under tight security at a special criminal court that handles corruption and organized crime cases in Pezinok, a town just outside the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. The journalist’s 27-year-old fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, was also murdered when an alleged hitman entered their home on Feb. 21, 2018, on a mission to kill Kuciak.
The trial opened with a twist after the alleged hitman, a former soldier named Miroslav Marcek, pleaded guilty to the killings. His admission of guilt was not entirely unexpected because he had allegedly confessed to police previously.
The three other defendants, including businessman Marian Kocner, the alleged mastermind of the assassination, pleaded innocent. All four defendants face 25 years in prison to life sentences. A fifth suspect, Zoltan Andrusko, entered a plea deal with prosecutors and is acting as a witness for state prosecutors. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December.
Kuciak worked for an online news site called Aktuality and he was credited with uncovering alleged tax fraud and financial crimes implicating prominent business people and political leaders in Slovakia. He also probed the activities of criminal groups in Slovakia, including Italy’s mafia-like ‘Ndrangheta.
The trial comes at a difficult moment for the European Union as it grapples with deep-seated corruption in many eastern European countries like Slovakia and the illegal activities of criminal groups and high-profile tax fraud and money laundering cases.
Kuciak’s killing came only months after another investigative journalist was assassinated in October 2017 for her work looking into shady business deals involving politicians and a prominent businessman in Malta, a island nation in the Mediterranean that has attracted a lot of wealthy individuals, and allegedly also a lot of dirty money, after becoming an EU member in 2004.
The killings of anti-corruption journalists shocked Europe and led to mass protests in both countries and demands for political change. In Slovakia, Kuciak’s death quickly led to the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet as people took to the streets to protest in numbers not seen since the fall of communism and the so-called Velvet Revolution.
The public’s demands for change helped elect a new progressive president, Zuzana Caputova, in March 2019 and the small mountainous country is now held up as a beacon of hope in an eastern Europe awash in corruption and run by authoritarian and corrupt politicians. The country now faces crucial parliamentary elections in February.
In this tense atmosphere, the trial over Kuciak’s killing is seen as a pivotal moment in the fight against corruption both in Slovakia and across the EU more generally.
At the center of the case is Kocner, who prosecutors accuse of paying hitmen to assassinate Kuciak because he was reporting on his shady business dealings.
Investigators found on Kocner’s cellphone that he had chats with a number of state officials, including an assistant justice minister, a judge, state prosecutors and a businessman related to the former chief of Slovakia’s police. The former police chief resigned after Kuciak’s killing.
Kocner allegedly had Kuciak and other journalists placed under surveillance and, according to news reports, has been linked to other crimes implicating politicians, judges, prosecutors and police officers.
In December, U.S. authorities placed Kocner on their sanctions list for his engagement “in serious human rights abuses.” The American embassy in Slovakia said he threatened Kuciak because the journalist exposed his fraudulent business deals and that he hired a former Slovak Intelligence Service member to conduct surveillance on Kuciak.
In the wake of the investigation into Kuciak’s murder, other top officials stepped down or were suspended from their duties, including prosecutors and judges. The investigation has bruised former Prime Minister Robert Fico and his powerful Direction-Social Democracy party because it has exposed the party’s ties to Kocner.
Grigorij Meseznikov, a political scientist and president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, said in a recent column that the leaked conversations found on Kocner’s cellphone showed that he had “managed to create a network – a sort of rogue micro-empire – that included corrupt politicians, government officials, judges, prosecutors, police, notaries, bailiffs, lawyers, journalists, former secret service agents and eventually the alleged assassins.”
Meseznikov said Kocner was able to influence who got appointed to judicial and government positions and that he had sway over government institutions too.
“Of course, Kocner’s main motivation was personal profit – an effort to get ever richer,” Meseznikov said. “However, his actions contaminated the entire judicial system (police, courts, prosecutors) and, more broadly, constitutional institutions, including the government, ministries and parliament.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)