Murder of Ján Kuciak
Murdered journalist Ján Kuciak.
|Date||21 February 2018|
|Outcome||Resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico, and his cabinet|
|Deaths||Ján Kuciak (27)|
Martina Kušnírová (27)
Ján Kuciak (17 May 1990 – 21 February 2018) was a Slovak investigative journalist. Kuciak worked as a reporter for the news website Aktuality.sk, focused mainly on investigating tax fraud of several businessmen with connections to top-level Slovak politicians. He and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, were shot dead in February 2018 in their home in Veľká Mača, Galanta District, Slovakia.
Kuciak was the first journalist murdered in Slovakia since the country's independence. The murders caused shock and disbelief throughout the country, sparking mass popular protests and a political crisis, with the government of Prime Minister Robert Fico on one side, and President Andrej Kiska and opposition parties on the other. The crisis culminated on 15 March with the resignation of Prime Minister Fico and his entire cabinet.
In September 2018, Slovak police stated that Kuciak was murdered because of his investigative work, and that the murder had been ordered. They arrested eight suspects, charging three of them with first-degree murder.
Jan Kuciak was born on 17 May 1990 in the village of Štiavnik in Bytča District. He studied and graduated with a masters degree in journalism at the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra, where he continued his studies as a post-graduate student in the field of mass media communication. While working on his PhD, he also held a teaching position at the same faculty.
He later started to work for the newspaper Hospodárske noviny, before taking up a position in the editorial office of Aktuality.sk, primarily as an investigative journalist. He focused in particular on tax evasion, including cases related to the ruling Direction - Social Democracy party headed by Prime Minister Robert Fico. He had previously written about companies with unclear ownership as well as suspected systemic embezzlement from European Union funds.
In the last article published before his death, on 9 February 2018, he wrote about businessman Marián Kočner, who first became known in Slovakia in 1998 due to his unsuccessful attempt to take over the private television news network TV Markíza with the help of the State Intelligence Service (SIS). Kuciak had previously detailed in his articles how Kočner was involved in an elaborate VAT tax fraud scheme. According to Kuciak's investigation, Kočner was buying and selling luxury apartments to himself, sometimes at the symbolic rate of €1, defrauding the state of substantial tax revenue. Kočner then allegedly began to threaten Kuciak and his family. Kuciak filed a criminal complaint against Kočner in September 2017, but according to Kuciak, no police officer was assigned to the case in 44 days since the complaint was made.
At the time of his death, Kuciak was 27 years old. He lived in the village of Veľká Mača, about 65 km (40 miles) east of the capital Bratislava. On the morning of 26 February, police were called to his home by family members after the couple had not answered phone calls for more than four days. Kuciak's fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, usually spoke with her mother on a daily basis. Her mother stated that she last spoke with her daughter in the afternoon of 21 February. When she tried to contact her again that evening, there was no reply. The family stated that Kušnírová's cellphone appeared to switch off three days later, probably due to a dead battery.
Police entering the house found Kuciak and Kušnírová shot dead. Kuciak had been shot twice in the chest, while Kušnírová had been shot once in the head from the front. Both were shot at close range with a 9 mm caliber handgun. There was no evidence of a struggle and nothing appeared to have been stolen. Police found two empty cartridges at the crime scene as well as several unused bullets. The murders were initially believed to have been committed sometime between February 22 and 25, but were subsequently suspected to have taken place in the evening of February 21.
The murders sent shockwaves throughout Slovakia. The day after the news broke, gatherings were held around the country in tribute. Candles were lit at the Slovak National Uprising Square in Bratislava and in front of the editorial office of Aktuality.sk, where Kuciak worked. Similar gatherings were also organised in the Czech cities of Prague and Brno. President Andrej Kiska stated that he was "shocked and horrified that something like this happened in Slovakia". The President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, called on Slovakia to launch a thorough investigation, offering international support if needed, adding that "the European Parliament will not rest until justice is done". Ringier Axel Springer, the parent company of Aktuality.sk, called the murders a "cruel assassination", vowing to redouble their journalistic efforts.
On Friday, 2 March, up to 25,000 people protested in Bratislava against the attacks. On 9 March, protests were held in 48 towns and cities in Slovakia as well as 17 other cities around the world. In Bratislava alone, about 60,000 people held a protest march, the biggest turnout of any demonstration since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The protests were endorsed by several universities in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, teachers, school associations, artists and non-governmental organisations. 21 universities cancelled afternoon lectures to allow students and employees to attend the protests.
Two days after Prime Minister Fico's resignation, an even larger demonstration was held in Bratislava with over 65,000 people participating under slogans such as "Enough of Smer" and "Early elections". Former Speaker of Parliament and ex-presidential candidate František Mikloško made an impassioned speech during the protest saying that "the revolution started by the parents has to be finished by their children". He argued that only twice in the history of post-war Czechoslovakia have popular protests managed to make the government resign: in November 1989 and now, adding that "when somebody tries to abuse their power in the future, they should remember March 2018 and the mass protests". Mikloško's speech was accompanied by the ringing of keys, reminiscent of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
In a press conference the same morning, Slovak Police President Tibor Gašpar stated that the murders "likely have something to do with [Kuciak’s] investigative activities". The Government of Slovakia offered €1 million for information leading to the murderers. Prime Minister Robert Fico made the announcement during a press conference with Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák and Police President Tibor Gašpar. During the press conference, described by critics as "surreal" and "bizarre", they displayed packs of banknotes amounting to one million euros, which the government promised to give to anyone who came forward with relevant information that could help explain the murder. Furthermore, Prime Minister Fico announced the creation of an inter-agency task force involving employees of the General Prosecutor’s Office, Special Prosecutor’s Office, the Interior Ministry and the SIS in attempting to solve the case.
At the time of his murder, Kuciak was working on a report about Slovak connections with the Italian organized crime syndicate 'Ndrangheta. He had previously reported on organized tax fraud involving businesspeople close to the ruling Smer-SD party. On 28 February, Aktuality.sk published Kuciak's last, unfinished story. The article details the activities of Italian businessmen with ties to organised crime who have settled in eastern Slovakia, and have spent years embezzling European Union funds intended for the development of this relatively poor region, as well as their connections to high-ranking state officials, such as Viliam Jasaň, a deputy and the Secretary of the State Security Council of Slovakia, or Mária Trošková, a former nude model who became Chief Adviser of Prime Minister Robert Fico. Both Jasaň and Trošková took leave of absence on the same day, stating that they would return to their positions once the investigations were concluded.
On 1 March, four days after the discovery of the murders, heavily armed units from the Slovak Police Corps' elite National Crime Agency (NAKA) raided several locations in eastern Slovakia, in the cities of Michalovce and Trebišov. Antonino Vadalà, an Italian businessman mentioned in Kuciak's report, was detained along with his two brothers Sebastiano and Bruno, as well as his cousin Pietro Caprotta and several other men of Italian origin. All the detained men were released from custody after 48 hours, due to lack of sufficient evidence. On the day of the arrests, General Prosecutor Jaromír Čižnár ordered the police to give no further updates to the press or the public regarding the investigation. Vadala was rearrested on 13 March, this time due to an international warrant issued by the Italian police. According to the arrest warrant, Vadala is suspected of drug trafficking as well as money laundering. Among other offences, he was said to have been planning to import large quantities of cocaine from South America. On 23 April, Slovakia approved Italy's request for extradition.
As a result of their investigation into the murder, the Slovak police stated that Kuciak had been murdered because of his work as an investigative journalist, and that the murder had been ordered. In late September 2018, eight suspects were arrested, though the police suggested that the person who had ordered the killing was not among them, and is unknown. Three of those arrested were later charged with first-degree murder.
Arrests made in September
On 17 September 2018 the prosecutor published a facial composite (identikit) of a person that could have been involved in the assassination, or may have information about people closely connected to the crime. A man claiming to know the person from the image was subsequently questioned by police, and said it was his former colleague Miroslav Č. Miroslav then told the media that he did not understand why he was on the identikit. The prosecutor added that the murder had been carried out by professionals as a contract killing.
On 27 September 2018, heavily-armed elite forces from the National Crime Agency (NAKA) arrested eight suspects in Kolárovo. Minister Denisa Sakova announced that around 200 individuals had been questioned in relation to the murder. The attorney of Jan Kuciak's family, Daniel Lipšic, commented that "the scale of the investigation, even with help of Europol and other foreign investigative organisations, was unprecedented".
On 28 September 2018 police charged four of the eight suspects arrested with murder. The alleged shooter was named as Tomas Sz, who was helped by his cousin Miroslav M, a former soldier. Entrepreneur Zoltan Andrusko was said to have acted as a middleman, and the murder was carried out on the orders of Alena Zs from Komárno. They were taken into custody on 30 September 2018 on the orders of the Specialized Criminal Court in Banska Bystrica.
The same day the murder was announced, Prime Minister Fico called on the political opposition not to "exploit" the situation. Meanwhile, a number of opposition politicians accused the ruling Smer-SD party of indirect involvement. Member of Parliament Veronika Remišová, from the opposition OĽaNO party, compared the killings to the infamous murder of Róbert Remiáš, a police officer who was assassinated in 1996, in an act widely believed to have been a contract killing by the Slovak mafia on the orders of Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. On 27 February, Freedom and Solidarity and OL'aNO demanded the resignation of Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák and Police President Tibor Gašpar.
The crisis escalated on 4 March when President Kiska made a live broadcast on state television, warning the government against further polarising the country. He called for either a "radical cabinet reshuffle" or a snap election. Kiska's speech infuriated Fico, who accused him of "joining the opposition". Furthermore, he accused the president of conspiring with Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros in the planning of a coup d'etat, based on the fact that President Kiska met with Soros at Soros' apartment in New York City in September 2017, ostensibly to discuss issues related to the Roma minority.
On 28 February, two days after the news of Kuciak's murder broke, Minister of Culture Marek Maďarič announced his resignation. Announcing his decision to the press, Madaric stated that "as a culture minister, I can't cope with the fact that a journalist was killed during my tenure." Robert Kaliňák, Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister, resigned on 12 March 2018 after weeks of mounting pressure. The Most-Hid party, the junior coalition partner in the government, had demanded the resignation of Kalinak in exchange for continued support of Smer-SD. The next day, Most-Hid joined the calls for snap elections, announcing that it would leave the government if it failed to reach a deal with its two coalition partners, Smer-SD and the Slovak National Party (SNS). Most-Híd Chairman, Béla Bugár, announced the decision after an eight-hour session of the Most-Hid Republican Council, the party's decision-making body.
On 14 March, following a meeting with President Kiska, Prime Minister Fico announced that he would resign as Prime Minister to avoid early elections and "solve the political crisis". During the meeting, Fico laid out a number of specific conditions to be met by the President in order for him to resign, including that the result of the 2016 Slovak parliamentary election be respected, that the current ruling government coalition must continue, and that Smer-SD, as the largest party in parliament, would name the next Prime Minister. Fico stated that he already had a candidate in mind, widely reported in Slovak media as Deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini. On 15 March, President Kiska formally accepted the resignation of Fico and his cabinet, and tasked Pellegrini with the forming of a new government.
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