Slovakia court set to give verdict in reporter’s slaying

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FILE – In this Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 file photo, light tributes are seen during a silent protest in memory of murdered journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kusnirova, seen in photo, in Bratislava, Slovakia. A court in Slovakia is expected to issue a verdict on Thursday Sept. 3, 2020, in the slayings of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, a crime that shocked the country and led a government to fall. (AP Photo/Bundas Engler, file)

PRAGUE (AP) — A court in Slovakia is expected to issue a verdict Thursday in the slayings of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, a crime that shocked the country and led a government to fall.

The state prosecution has requested 25-year prison terms for three remaining defendants, one of them a businessman accused of masterminding the killings. They all pleaded not guilty to murdering journalist Jan Kuciak, and fiancee Martina Kusnirova, both aged 27.

But the trial at the Specialized Criminal Court in Pezinok, which handles Slovakia’s most serious cases, might not be coming to an end, yet.

A three-judge tribunal originally was set to deliver a verdict in early August but delayed its decision, citing a need for more time.

Prosecutors submitted additional evidence on Monday. The panel could decide to postpone the verdict again to give them a chance to present the evidence in court.

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.

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 and to the dismissal of the national police chief.

Kuciak had been writing about alleged ties between the Italian mafia and people close to Fico when he was killed, and also wrote about corruption scandals linked to Fico’s leftist Smer – Social Democracy party.

The accused mastermind, Marian Kocner, allegedly threatened the journalist following publication of a story about his business dealings, prosecutors maintain. Overall, Kucial published nine stories about Kocner.

Kocner has said Kuciak was not a threat for him.

“I’m not a saint, but I’m also not a murderer,” he said.

The other two defendants on trial, Alena Zsuzsova and Tomas Szabó, are accused of being accomplices who helped the businessman organize the fatal shooting of the couple in February 2018.

Two more defendants already were convicted and sentenced. Former soldier Miroslav Marcek pleaded guilty to shooting Kuciak and Kusnirova and was sentenced to 23 years in prison in April. Prosecutors said Kocner paid Marcek for the killing.

A fifth suspect, Zoltan Andrusko, who acted as a go-between, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lesser sentence and received a 15-year prison term in December.

Prosecutors say the investigation revealed Kocner had created a wide network of contacts with politicians, judges and prosecutors, including the prosecutor general who allegedly helped Kocner with his business dealings.

The revelations resulted in a number of resignations, including of judges, the deputy parliament speaker and a senior Justice Ministry official.

The long dominant but scandal-tainted Smer party was punished in Slovakia’s parliamentary election in February, a result that analysts said showed a strong desire by voters to end corruption.

Smer, which was in power for most of the past 14 years, was replaced as governing party by a center-right coalition.

The slaying case also has put Slovakia’s legal system under pressure, a possible reason for trial delays, said Samuel Abraham, a political scientist who is rector of the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts.

“It’s very difficult for judges to deliver a verdict if they’re not hundred percent certain about it,” Abraham said.

If convicted, Kocner is likely to appeal at a European court, he said.

“And there, any doubts about the verdict might free a person who obviously corrupted judges, prosecutors, police and politicians and belonged to the Slovak underworld, if the lawyers, prosecutors and judges don’t do their job properly,” Abraham said.

Kocner was sentenced to 19 years in prison in a separate case over alleged forgery and securities crime in February.

In December, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Kocner and six of his businesses for threatening Kuciak.

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