International Press Institute (IPI) Contributor Miroslava German Sirotnikova
Media www.rajawalisiber.com – Even though the killers of Jan Kuciak and his fiancée have been lawfully convicted, the trial of the alleged masterminds will continue this year. Meanwhile, the corruption investigations set off by the murder are growing, writes Miroslava German Sirotnikova for IPI.
Last September, the families of investigative reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, both shot in their home on February 21, 2018, left the courtroom in Pezinok in tears after a judge acquitted Marian Kočner and Alena Zsuzsová of ordering Kuciak’s murder. Although the extravagant businessman and his associate remained in custody for other crimes, their acquittal in the widely watched murder trial was accompanied with great frustration by the people who had followed the case in great detail for the past two years.
Four months have now passed since the first verdict, which was delivered under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. The verdict will be reviewed in 2021 at the Slovak Supreme Court after prosecutors appealed. On December 2, the Supreme Court ruled in a related appeal case, upholding the sentence for Miroslav Marček, a former soldier who killed the couple and pleaded guilty in the special court last January. Despite providing detailed testimony and cooperating with investigators, Marček’s sentence was increased from 23 to 25 years in prison.
Daniel Lipšic, the lawyer for the Kuciak family, called the ruling a “small victory”. “The ruling is fair”, Lipšic said about Marček’s 25-year sentence. “It’s true that Marček admitted his guilt and cooperated, but it was only in the final pre-trial stage, so we think the 25-year sentence is more adequate. Although 25 years will never replace human lives, it is a fairer punishment”, he added. “The big battle is still ahead of us, in the main case with defenders Marian Kočner and Alena Zsuzsová”, he said in remarks to the media.
“[The court] has proven that the legal analysis provided by our [special prosecution] office was right”, prosecutor Peter Kysel, who represented the state at Marček’s hearing, said. “We believe we’ll be just as successful in the main case”, he added.
Two other people, Zoltán Andruskó and Tomáš Szabó, have also been convicted for their roles in the murder. Andruskó admitted his guilt and will serve 15 years, while Szabó was sentenced to 25 years in prison in September.
The “big” case, with defendants Kočner and Zsuzsová, who are accused of ordering the murder of an “inconvenient“ journalist who had been writing about Kočner’s shady business deals, was picked up by the Supreme Court in November. An electronic system appointed a panel of judges by random for the trial. Not long after, the composition of the three-judge panel ignited questions about possible conflicts of interest. One of the original members of the panel recused himself because he had been represented by one of the defendant’s lawyers in the past. He was replaced by Ivetta Macejková, former head of the Constitutional Court.
Macejková, however, was mentioned in communication between Kočner and a friend and oligarch named Norbert Bödör – now also in custody for corruption – that was used as evidence in the trial. In 2018, Bödör asked Kočner via the messaging app Threema “who is close” to the judge in an apparent attempt to influence her. Kočner replied “the boss, RF”, probably referring to Robert Fico, leader of the SMER-SD party and Slovakia’s prime minister at the time.
Besides these messages, there is no other known evidence pointing to wrongdoing by Judge Macejková. But amid ever-emerging cases of corruption in the Slovak judiciary, the media, as well as some legal experts, have described the messages as significant. In Dennik N, lawyer Peter Kubina explained that Threema messages from Kočner’s phone are part of key evidence in the Kuciak trial. “The part mentioning the name of Judge Macejková isn’t directly connected to the murder, but I can imagine that for Judge Macejková and her future it would be much more convenient if Threema, including this part, didn’t exist, or if it was at least ruled false or untrustworthy”, he wrote.
In reaction to the questions about a possible conflict of interest, the Supreme Court judges asserted that the communication in itself didn’t implicate Macejková in anything. “If the communication of third parties, as it is in this case, was supposed to be the reason for excluding all of the mentioned judges from the trials, there would be no one left to decide in cases like this”, Peter Paluda, the main judge in the Kuciak case, told Dennik N. “I don’t feel partial either in the case itself, or towards any of the people involved”, Judge Macejková herself added.
Analysts in the country disagree, and say the judge’s failure to recuse herself points to a wider problem with the Slovak judiciary.
“In a normal country, a judge like this would have recused herself long ago, without the need for media, or even some politicians and prosecutors pointing to the connections”, Viera Žúborová, a political scientist from Bratislava Policy Institute think tank said. “It’s a very unfortunate situation that shows the way our courts have worked for years”, she added, saying she considered it a clear conflict of interest. “I’m disappointed by the insensitivity of the main actors who don’t see this as another endangerment or a deepening of distrust towards the courts and the truth”, she said. Trust in the judiciary lies at a paltry 22 percent in Slovakia, according to the latest Eurobarometer.
Over the past months, Slovak law enforcement continued its quest to root out corruption linked to top politics. Many of the suspicions and scandals uncovered by Jan Kuciak and his colleagues at Aktuality.sk have been confirmed by prosecutors and courts. In July, the National Criminal Agency (NAKA) detained Norbert Bödör, who was charged with corruption and later with being a part of organized crime. In the autumn, NAKA arrested a number of top former and active police and secret service executives, including two former police presidents; the head of the special prosecution office, Dušan Kováčik; and well-known oligarch Jaroslav Haščák, owner of PENTA financial group. The police officials and prosecutors were accused of forming an “organized group”, led by Bödör, acting in favour of the then-ruling SMER-SD party. In December, Peter Žiga, a former minister in SMER governments and a current MP, was also charged with corruption.
Žúborová said that the high number of arrests and investigations is anything but ordinary “in a normal, civilized country.” “In some moments it seemed to me that Slovakia was a non-functioning state divided between the powerful and the corrupted” the political expert said. She thinks that Slovakia was going through a cleaning process. “The question is what we take from it”, she said, warning of a possibility of increased support for politicians who call for the destruction of the system. “Or we learn from it, and take it as an opportunity for reforming Slovakia on the basis of democracy and lawful game rules”, she added.