Killer of Slovak Journalist Sentenced as Rights Groups Await further Convictions

Hundreds of thousands of people took part in protests across Slovakia in the weeks after journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were killed, eventually forcing the resignation of the Prime Minister and Interior Minister. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

By Ed Holt
BRATISLAVA, Apr 8 2020 (IPS)

Journalists and rights activists have welcomed the jailing of a man for the murders of Slovak investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova, but say others involved in the killings must be convicted too if justice is to be fully served.

Self-confessed hired killer Miroslav Marcek, 37, was sentenced to 23 years in jail by a Slovak court this week.

At a hearing in January he had pleaded guilty to murdering the couple, both 27, in February 2018. He shot the pair at Kuciak’s home in Velka Maca, 40 miles east of the Slovak capital Bratislava.

But three other people – Tomas Szabo, Alena Zsuszova, and Marian Kocner – are also on trial over the murders and groups including the Slovak anti-corruption and rights movement Za slusne Slovensko (For a Decent Slovakia), which was formed in response to the killings, said it wanted to see everyone involved brought to justice.

“It is extremely important that the intermediaries and those who ordered the murder of Jan Kuciak are tried and punished….we await further convictions,” the group said in a Facebook post after Marcek’s sentencing.

The killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova shocked the nation and prompted the largest mass protests in the country since the fall of communism.

Prime Minister Robert Fico and Interior Minister Robert Kalinak were forced to resign, and the head of the police service later stepped down.

Police said that the murders were related to Kuciak’s work as an investigative journalist – Kuciak’s last story had exposed alleged links between Italian mafia and Fico’s Social Democracy party – and the subsequent investigation uncovered alleged links between politicians, prosecutors, judges, and police officers and the people allegedly involved in the killings.

At the centre of this was Kocner, a powerful local businessman with alleged links to organised crime, whom Kuciak had written about.

Charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder, for many he has become the central figure in the trial and a symbol of deep-rooted corruption at the highest levels of the state.

Following Marcek’s sentencing, attention has already turned to what sentence Kocner, if he is found guilty, will receive.

While some, including relatives of the murdered couple, said Marcek should have been jailed for even longer, others said that it was key that Kocner is seen to be given an even harsher sentence.

Pavol Szalai, head of European Union and Balkans Desk at press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told IPS: “I would not want to comment on whether Marcek’s sentence is long enough or not. What is important though is that if Kocner is found guilty he is given an exemplary sentence – a whole life sentence meaning he will stay in prison until the end of his natural life.

“For the mastermind of the murder, Marcek was dispensable, he was someone who was hired to kill. What is important is that if Kocner – who is allegedly the mastermind – had not ordered the killing, there would have been no murder of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova.”

Writing on the Slovak news website Aktuality.sk, where Kuciak was employed, comment writer Dag Danis, made a similar call.

He said after Marcek was sentenced: “The court should save the harshest punishment for Marian Kocner, who, according to prosecutors, ordered the ‘disappearance’ of Jan Kuciak in the naïve belief that it would silence other journalists.”

Kocner has denied the charges against him, as have Zsuzsova, who is accused of arranging Kuciak’s killing, and Szabo, who is charged with helping Marcek carry out the murder.

The court hearings are in their early stages and those following them are so far reluctant to speculate on the outcome.

In an editorial just before the start of the trial the Sme daily suggested that Kocner would probably not be found guilty. But some journalists who spoke to IPS said that the proceedings over the initial few days of hearings had led them to believe he may actually be convicted.

Whatever happens, local journalists have said the outcome of the trial will be a watershed in Slovak history, in terms of both restoring public trust in a judiciary which the Kuciak murder investigation has shown to apparently be riddled with corruption, and in showing that same judiciary can clearly punish crimes designed to silence journalists.

For some, Marcek’s conviction has gone some way to doing that.

Drew Sullivan, editor at the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, told IPS: “Impunity is the norm with the killing of journalists. Usually, less than 10 percent of these cases are solved and many of those don’t ultimately get to the person who ordered it. So far this case looks like a pleasant outlier.”

However, others point out that Marcek’s conviction alone is not enough.

Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia programme co-ordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told IPS: “The sentencing of confessed hitman Miroslav Marcek is an important step towards justice. We hope to see full justice through fair trial and punishment of all those involved in the assassination, including the masterminds.

“Unfortunately, we see way too often how killers get away with the murder of journalists. Ending impunity is crucial for the safety of all journalists.”

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