PEZINOK, Slovakia (AP) — Four people went on trial in Slovakia on Thursday over the alleged contract killing of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, a crime that shocked the country and led a government to fall.
The suspects appearing in court in a town near the capital of Bratislava include a Slovak businessman accused of masterminding the double slaying and the alleged hired assassin.
A fifth suspect made an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lower sentence. The deal has to be approved by a judge, and the other suspects said Thursday they weren’t interested in striking similar deals
The suspects were escorted to the court by heavily armed guards. If convicted of last year’s killings of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova, they face potential prison sentences of 25 years or life.
Kuciak and Kusnirova were killed in their home on Feb. 21, 2018. Slovak authorities said they believed the killings were linked to Kuciak’s work investigating possible widespread government corruption and ties between Slovak politicians and Italian mobsters.
The 27-year-old reporter was shot in the chest and Kusnirova was shot in the head in the town of Velka Maca, east of Bratislava.
Their parents were present at the court.
“I didn’t see anything in their eyes, any feelings of being sorry, just emptiness,” Kusnirova’s mother, Zlatica said.
At the opening, Judge Ruzena Sabova, who heads a three-judge tribunal, dismissed the calls by the defense for the trial to be postponed because a lack of time to study the evidence.
Sabova rejected the arguments by the defense.
“The right to defense was not violated at all,” she said. The trial will resume on Jan 13.
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 Robert Fico, and the dismissal of the national police chief.
Prosecutors claim a total sum of 70,000 euros ($77,800) was paid for the alleged contract slayings. The suspected mastermind, Marian Kocner, is a businessman who had allegedly threatened the journalist following publication of a story about him.
He also allegedly hired Slovak former intelligence officials to carry out surveillance on Kuciak before his killing.
Kuciak had filed a complaint with police in 2017 over the alleged threats. He claimed that police failed to act then. After the slayings, police renewed their investigation of the threats.
Slovak authorities said the FBI, Britain’s Scotland Yard, Europol, Eurojust and police forces from Italy and the Czech Republic helped with the investigation.
The journalist had been writing about alleged ties between the Italian mafia and people close to Fico when he was killed. The reporter also wrote about corruption scandals linked to the former prime minister’s leftist Smer Social Democracy party.
During the investigation, Slovak media claimed that the suspected mastermind, Kocner, had created a wide network of contacts with politicians, judges and prosecutors who allegedly helped him with his business dealings.
Slovak authorities haven’t commented on the leaked documents, but their publication resulted in several resignations of judges, the deputy parliamentary speaker and a senior justice ministry official.
Dobroslav Trnka, the country’s former prosecutor-general, was charged by police on Wednesday with abuse of power for his alleged cooperation with Kocner when he held his post.
Kocner is also on trial in a separate case over alleged forgery and securities crime.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Kocner and six of his businesses for threatening Kuciak.