Murder of 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, followed by the forming of a new cabinet led by Peter Pellegrini.
According to the prosecution's indictment, a well-known businessman Marian Kočner tasked Alena Zsuzsová with arranging Kuciak's murder, with which she in turn tasked Zoltán Andruskó, who ordered Tomáš Szabó and Miroslav Marček to carry out the murder.
On 3 September 2020, a first-degree court acquitted Kočner and Zsuzsová of involvement in the murders. The prosecutor appealed against the ruling and the case is to be reviewed by the Supreme Court.
Zoltán Andruskó, a businessman from Chotín, admitted to ordering the murder, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Marček, a former soldier, admitted to shooting Kuciak and Kušnírová and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. His cousin Tomáš Szabó, a former policeman, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for participating in the murder.
Ján Kuciak was born on 17 May 1990 in the village of Štiavnik in Bytča District. He studied and graduated with a master's degree in journalism at the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra, where he continued his studies as a postgraduate 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 particularly focused on cases of tax evasion, including ones related to the then-ruling party Direction - Social Democracy headed by PM Robert Fico. He had previously written about companies with unclear ownership as well as suspected systemic embezzlement from European Union funds.
The most prominent subject of his articles was businessman Marian 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 Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS). In his June 2017 articles, Kuciak described several discrepancies in the halted investigation of a case involving Kočner and the suspicious transfers of his hotels in Donovaly, which resulted in a €8 million VAT refund in 2010-2012. On 5 September 2017, Kočner phoned Kuciak and confronted him over his work, using profanities and saying that he would start gathering damaging information about Kuciak and his family. Two days later Kuciak filed a complaint against Kočner, but was not spoken to about the issue by police until over a month later. Kočner was accused of tax and insurance premiums evasion in the Donovaly case in late September 2017.
In a December 2017 article, Kuciak described suspicious activity in a legal case in which Kočner’s firm IIDH was suing pharmaceutical distribution company Unipharma and its subsidiary for €45 million. In response, the Ministry of Justice launched an investigation into the actions of the judge involved in the case. In the last article published before his death, Kuciak wrote about suspicious transactions involving Kočner in the Bratislava apartment building Five Star Residence. According to the article, 19 apartments were sold to and from five different firms fully or partially controlled by Kočner at least twice, raising questions about possible tax-related criminal activity.
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 2018, 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". Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament, 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 gathered in Bratislava to commemorate the murdered couple. 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 organizations. 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. Vadalà was rearrested on 13 March, this time due to an international warrant issued by the Italian police. According to the arrest warrant, Vadalà 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 was a contract killing.
Arrests made in September
On 17 September 2018 the prosecutor published a facial composite (identikit) of a person who allegedly could have been involved in the assassination, or may have information about people closely connected to the crime. The prosecutor added that the murder had been carried out by professionals as a contract killing. A man from Veľká Mača named Marek claiming to know the person from the image was subsequently questioned by police. He said it was his former colleague Miroslav Č., then living in Ostrava, who told the media that he did not understand why he was on the identikit.
On 27 September 2018, heavily-armed elite forces from the National Crime Agency (NAKA) arrested eight suspects in Kolárovo. Three of them, Tomáš Szabó, Miroslav Marček, and Zoltán Andruskó, were charged with the murder and other crimes, and the others were released. Minister Denisa Saková announced that around 200 individuals had been questioned in relation to the murder. The attorney of Ján 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 Friday 28 September 2018, Alena Zsuzsová was also arrested in relation to the murder, and became the fourth person to be charged with the murder. It became clear that releasing the identikit was a tactical move by the police. The man pictured was related to one of the accused and after the identikit was released the suspects started to communicate more intensively.
On 14 March 2019, Kočner was charged with ordering the murder. At the time, Kočner was already in custody in relation to the case of forging of promissory notes involving TV Markíza.
On 11 April 2019, Miroslav Marček told police that he was the one who shot Kuciak and Kušnírová, which disproved an earlier theory that Szabó was the shooter and Marček the driver.
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 OĽaNO 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, Maďarič 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-Híd party, the junior coalition partner in the government, had demanded the resignation of Kaliňák in exchange for continued support of Smer-SD. The next day, Most-Híd 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 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.
On 22 March 2018, President Andrej Kiska appointed a new cabinet led by Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini. Tomáš Drucker, former Minister of Health, was appointed Minister of Interior. Protest organisers announced on the same day via Facebook that they were cancelling the upcoming "For a Decent Slovakia" protest, and that they were forming a civic platform while closely watching the new government's next steps.
Three days later they announced that if Drucker did not remove Police President Tibor Gašpar from office, protests would start again. On 28 March, they announced further protests. Around 30,000 people protested in Bratislava on 5 April. Drucker resigned on 16 April, saying that after a three-week assessment he did not agree with dismissing Gašpar, and would not remain as minister if it polarized society. The next day, Pellegrini and Gašpar announced that they agreed that Gašpar would step down at the end of May in order to calm the tensions.
Trials and sentencing
First-degree court proceedings
On 30 December 2019, one of the accused, Zoltán Andruskó, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after striking a deal with prosecutors. Andruskó pleaded guilty to all charges against him, and agreed to be a witness for the prosecution in the trials of the other defendants. Due to his cooperation with the murder investigation, the prosecutor proposed a reduction in his sentence from a possible 25 years to life in prison to 10 years, though this was rejected by the court. The court requested a sentence of 15 years in prison, which Andruskó accepted. His prison sentence began the same day.
The trial of Marian Kočner, Alena Zsuzsová, Tomáš Szabó and Miroslav Marček began on 13 January 2020 at the Specialized Criminal Court in Pezinok. The 2016 murder of Peter Molnár, a businessman from Kolárovo, was included in the case. On the first day of the trial, Marček confessed to killing Kuciak and Kušnírová, and also admitted to killing Molnár during a violent burglary in 2016. He described how he and his cousin Szabó accepted the order for Kuciak's murder from Andruskó and how the three of them prepared for it. He testified that Szabó drove them to Veľká Mača on the evening of 21 February 2018, and described how he himself executed both Kuciak and Kušnírová. Szabó picked Marček up after the murders, and the two of them then destroyed the gun. Marček also described how he killed Peter Molnár with Szabó's assistance in the 2016 burglary.
On the second day of the trial, Andruskó testified against all four defendants, now as a sentenced witness rather than accused.
On 6 April 2020, Marček was sentenced to 23 years in prison after his case was allocated a separate trial. The prosecutor appealed against the sentence, after which the Supreme Court increased Marček's sentence to 25 years.
The trial of Kočner, Zsuzsová and Szabó lasted 22 days. One of the key witnesses was Peter Tóth, former head of the Slovak Information Service (SIS) and a friend of Kočner, who testified about how he, at Kočner's request, organized a surveillance team which followed, took photographs, and recorded footage of various journalists, including Kuciak. This was done to gather material which Kočner could purportedly then use to compromise his opponents publicly in an online program entitled Pranier (English: Pillory). Two members of the surveillance team testified as witnesses. Other witnesses included Norbert Bödör and Jaroslav Haščák, prominent Slovak businessmen and acquaintances of Kočner. Towards the end of the proceedings, Zoltán Andruskó testified again. Both sides presented closing arguments.
In a verdict delivered on 3 September 2020, Tomáš Szabó was found guilty of involvement in the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová, the murder of Peter Molnár, and of unauthorised carrying of weapons, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Marian Kočner was found guilty of unauthorised carrying of weapons and given a fine of €5,000. Kočner and Alena Zsuzsová were acquitted of charges related to the murders of Kuciak and Kušnírová. The court stated that their involvement in the murders was not proved beyond reasonable doubt. The court explained its verdict by stating that not a single piece of direct evidence was put forward against Kočner, with the indictment being built on a series of circumstantial evidence; the only direct evidence against Zsuzsová was the testimony of Zoltán Andruskó. The prosecutor immediately appealed against the court's ruling to acquit Kočner and Zsuzsová. Kočner remained in prison, having been sentenced by a first-degree court to 19 years in a case of forging of promissory notes, involving Markíza - Slovakia. Following the verdict, Zsuzsová was released and immediately re-arrested, as she is charged with involvement in the attempted murders of prosecutor Maroš Žilinka, Daniel Lipšic, and prosecutor Peter Šufliarsky. The Specialized Criminal Court in Banská Bystrica ordered custody for Zsuzsová on 5 September 2020, and extended it on 16 March 2021.
Various public officials (domestic and international), media representatives, and organizations reacted negatively to this ruling. President Zuzana Čaputová wrote on Facebook that she was shocked by the verdict and needed to understand its explanation, adding that she respected it but expected that the case would not end and would continue to the Supreme Court. Prime Minister Igor Matovič stated on Facebook: "It seems that for now the apparent instigators of the murder would like to slip out of the clutches of justice… Let’s believe that justice will wait for them both."
The supervising prosecutor submitted his appeal to the Supreme Court on 23 October 2020. In the appeal, he reasoned that the first-degree court refused to take into account crucial evidence, that the court's reasoning was wrong and based on unclear and incomplete findings, and that the court did not deal with all circumstances important for the verdict. He further argued that in coming to its decision the court used evidence which was not presented before the court during the trial. He contested the court's reasoning about the unreliability of witnesses Andruskó and Tóth, as well as the court's failure to correctly assess the conflicting statements made by Kočner and Zsuzsová, among other arguments against the verdict. He proposed that the Supreme Court return the case to the Specialized Criminal Court to be retried by a different three-judge panel, suggesting that additional witnesses be called and additional evidence be considered.
Kušnírová's mother and her attorney Roman Kvasnica also appealed against the verdict, again asking the Supreme Court to order the case to be reconsidered by the Specialized Criminal Court, this time by a different three-judge panel.
The case was allocated to a three-judge panel at the Supreme Court on 16 November 2020.
On 4 December 2020, Zsuzsová was convicted by a first-degree court of participation in the 2010 murder of László Basternák, ex-mayor of Hurbanovo. She was sentenced to 21 years in prison. On 12 January 2021, the Supreme Court confirmed the sentence of 19 years and a €10,000 fine for Kočner in the case of forging of promissory notes involving Markíza - Slovakia. He therefore also remains in prison while the Supreme Court reviews the Kuciak case. Other criminal proceedings are ongoing against both.
Peter Kubina replaced Daniel Lipšic as the attorney of Kuciak's parents, as Lipšic was elected Special Prosecutor of the Slovak Republic on 5 February 2021.
Collaborating with the investigators, Zoltán Andruskó described the planned murders of prosecutor Maroš Žilinka, Daniel Lipšic and prosecutor Peter Šufliarsky. According to Andruskó, Zsuzsová ordered the murders of Žilinka and Lipšic in autumn 2017 and paid him a €20,000 deposit. They were to be killed at the same time if they met, and if not, Žilinka was to be prioritized. The promised sums for the murders were €70,000 for the murder of Žilinka (with an extra €10,000 promised for the murder of each of his family members) and €200,000 for the murder of Lipšic. After being turned down by certain Hungarians, Andruskó went on to task Szabó and Marček with these murders. They accepted but did not act for two months. He then asked his acquaintance Dušan Kracina from Komárno to arrange Žilinka's murder. Kracina allegedly arranged the murder with Serbian accomplices, but Andruskó halted it shortly before it was carried out, out of fear. Andruskó kept telling Zsuzsová that the murders were still being planned. She then ordered the murder of Ján Kuciak through Andruskó, which was carried out by Szabó and Marček.
In summer 2018, Zsuzsová tasked Andruskó with the murder of prosecutor Peter Šufliarsky, for which she promised a €100,000 reward. Szabó and Marček were supposed to carry out the murder, initially planning to use an explosive planted in a garbage can in front of Šufliarsky's house. Andruskó was unable to acquire an explosive, so they acquired a gun. They monitored Šufliarsky until their arrest in September 2018 in the Kuciak case.
These crimes were initially included in the investigation of the murders of Kuciak and Kušnírová. The investigation was reallocated by Minister of Interior Denisa Saková to the Ministry of Interior's Office of the Inspection Service in February 2019, an action Lipšic criticized. In September 2020, the case was returned to the National Criminal Agency (NAKA) for investigation. Žilinka and Šufliarsky have said they believe the motive behind the ordering of their murders was their prosecution work. Lipšic expressed the belief that the person who ordered his murder was Kočner. As of March 2021, the individuals charged with these crimes are Zsuzsová, Andruskó, Szabó, Marček, Kracina, and a Bosnian national identified as Darko Dragic.
Surveillance of journalists
Marian Kočner, Peter Tóth, and three men who formed a group organized by Tóth, were charged with misdemeanors by the National Criminal Agency over the surveillance of a group of individuals, mainly journalists, among them Ján Kuciak. The misdemeanor with which they are charged is classified in Slovak law as a "violation of the confidentiality of oral speech, and of the confidentiality of other manifestations of a personal nature".
Awards and legacy
Ján Kuciak was given various awards:
Special Award of the Journalism Award 2017 and the Investigative Journalism Fund at the Open Society Foundation, in memoriam.
Goldene Victoria 2018 - Pressefreiheit, in memoriam (German media award in the press freedom category).
Biela Vrana 2018, in memoriam (award given for a socially beneficial and courageous civic act by Aliancia Fair-play and VIA IURIS).
The Best Investigative Article, the Czecho-Slovak Award of the Public and the Open Society Award for the article Talianska mafia na Slovensku. Jej chápadlá siahajú aj do politiky (English: Italian mafia in Slovakia. Its tentacles reach also into politics), all awarded posthumously at the Open Society Foundation's Journalism Award 2018.
The US Embassy in Slovakia renamed its annual Transparency Award to Ján Kuciak Memorial Transparency Award in honor of the murdered journalist.
|2018||Ján Kuciak, in memoriam||investigative journalist for Aktuality.sk|
|2019||Adam Valček||investigative journalist for SME|
|2020||Jaroslav Macek||Chair of the District Court in Žilina|
The association Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak (ICJK) began their activity in January 2019. Its goals are uncovering organized crime and its connections to politicians or public institutions, and cooperation with other investigative centers (such as OCCRP).
In popular culture
Scumbag (Slovak: Sviňa) is a 2020 thriller directed by Mariana Čengel-Solčanská and Rudolf Biermann, based on the novel of the same name by Arpád Soltész. Both the novel and the film were partially inspired by Kuciak's murder and related events.
- Daphne Caruana Galizia, Maltese investigative journalist murdered in 2017
- List of journalists killed in Europe
- Assassination of Róbert Remiáš
- Slovakian Revolution
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