On February 25, 2018, Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová were found shot dead in their house in Velká Mača, some 50 kilometers from capital Bratislava, Slovakia, local media reported. The journalist was shot in the chest with a single bullet, and his fiancée was shot in the head, according to reports. Police later established they were murdered on February 21.
Then chief of police Tibor Gašpar said that the murders were "most likely" linked to the work of the journalist, Reuters reported.
Kuciak worked for the news website Aktuality, where he investigated tax fraud associated with individuals close to the ruling social democratic party Smer, according to Reuters.
Before his death, Kuciak had worked with the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Aktuality on an investigation into an Italian mafia group, ‘Ndragheta, and their incursions into Slovakia, the OCCRP said in a statement.
At the time of his death, the journalist was collecting records on men considered by Italian police to be extremely dangerous, the OCCRP stated. The OCCRP has since published the uncompleted version of Kuciak’s article, which alleged embezzlement of EU funds.
The journalist’s last story for Aktuality, on February 9, looked at suspected tax fraud linked to a luxury apartment complex in Bratislava, Reuters reported. Kuciak had previously reported to police that he had received threats last year from Marián Kočner, a businessperson about whom Kuciak had written, according to The Associated Press. “It has been 44 days since I filed a criminal complaint…for the threats. And the case probably does not even have a particular cop,” the journalist wrote on his Facebook page in October 2017, according to the Guardian.
Kočner previously stated he would set up a website publishing information on the private lives of journalists reporting on the alleged tax fraud case against him, the newspaper reported. Slovakia’s National Criminal Agency (NAKA) has since dropped the fraud case. Kočner did not immediately comment on Kuciak and Kušnířova’s murders, the Guardian stated.
NAKA on June 19, 2018, detained Kočner on charges that included tax fraud in an incident unrelated to Kuciak’s murder, Slovak media reported. He denied any involvement in the murders, according to media reports.
On September 28, authorities charged three people with the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová, according to reports. The unnamed suspects were among eight people arrested in a raid the day before, according to reports. The other five were released, according to a prosecutor cited in news reports.
The state prosecutor in Bratislava announced on September 30 that the court charged a fourth person with participating in the murders, and ordered all four suspects jailed until their trial, Reuters reported.
Citing local media, the OCCRP reported October 1, that among the detainees was a woman, identified by the police by her initials, A.Zs., who allegedly ordered the murder and paid 70,000 euros (US$80,000) for the hit. Slovak media also reported that the woman was allegedly connected to Kočner, according to the OCCRP.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protest over the couple’s murder. A series of demonstrations were held in Bratislava and other Slovak cities, and several high level officials resigned, including Prime Minister Robert Fico in March, Interior Minister Tomáš Drucker in April and police chief Tibor Gašpar in May, after public outcry over the murder, media reported.
On December 6, 2018, CPJ met with Slovakia’s Interior Ministry and police officials on a press freedom mission to Bratislava. The authorities said they were pursuing all lines of inquiry to establish who ordered the murders. In separate meetings, Slovak journalists expressed cautious optimism to CPJ that the investigation was progressing.
In February 2019, CPJ conducted an advocacy and solidarity mission to Bratislava, and met with the office of the special prosecutors in charge of the Kuciak investigation and Ministry of Interior officials. CPJ urged Slovak officials to expedite charges against all parties involved in Kuciak’s murder.
On March 14, 2019, special prosecutors announced in a press conference in Bratislava that they had charged Kočner on March 8 with ordering the murder of Kuciak, Slovak daily newspaper Sme reported. Kočner had been in detention on unrelated financial fraud charges since June 2018, according to news reports.
On October 21, 2019, the Special Prosecutor’s Office announced that it indicted four people, including Kočner, in the killing, media reported. The other suspects named in the indictment were Alena Zsuzsová, who was identified previously as A.Z.), Miroslav Marček, and Tomáš Szabó. Reports said that prosecutors believe Kočner was the mastermind, Zsuzsová acted as a middleman, ordering the murder, and Marček acted as a driver for the shooter, his cousin and former police officer Szabó.
The spokesperson for the Special Prosecutor’s Office, Jana Tökölyová, told the TASR news agency that her office filed an indictment to the specialized criminal court in Pezinok.
In a statement, a spokesperson said that the four suspects could face life in prison on six charges, including pre-meditated murder, Reuters reported. All four were in custody, according to Kuciak’s paper.
In an October 29, 2019, email to CPJ, the Special Prosecutor’s Office said that it filed charges including two counts of premeditated murder, against four suspects. One count is in relation to the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová, and the second relates to a 2016 murder of an individual named Peter Molnár. All four suspects are in custody. The office did not indicate if the suspects denied the charges.
On December 30, 2019, a special court in the city of Pezinok sentenced Andruskó to 15 years in prison for premeditated murder of Kuciak in a plea deal, according to news reports. On April 6, 2020, the same court sentenced Marček to 23 years in prison for the murder, according to reports.
On September 3, 2020, the special court in Pezinok found Kočner not guilty of the ordering the murders, and acquitted Zsuzsová of involvement in organizing the murders, citing a lack of evidence in both cases, according to news reports. However, on June 15, 2021, the Slovak Supreme Court ordered a new trial in their case, finding that the September 2020 verdict did not adequately examine all available evidence, according to news reports.
The special court sentenced Szabó, the shooter, to 25 years in jail for the killing, according to those reports.
On November 5, 2020, special police units detained several high-ranking former police officers in connection with Kuciak’s killing, including the former head of the police force, Tibor Gašpar, and former leaders of the special police agency NAKA and the anti-corruption police unit, according to German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle and U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office said the men were arrested on suspicion of forming a criminal network, but she did not provide further details on their specific links to the case, RFE/RL reported.
On December 2, 2020, the Slovak Supreme Court increased Marček’s sentence to 25 years, after prosecutors challenged the lower court decision; the Supreme Court’s cannot be appealed, according to news reports.
On June 15, 2021, the Slovak Supreme Court ordered a new trial in the case of Marian Kočner and Alena Zsuzsová, because it ruled that the earlier verdict on September 3, 2020, acquitting Kočner of the ordering the murders, and Zsuzsová of involvement in organizing the murders, did not adequately examine all available evidence, according to news reports.
Kuciak was the first journalist killed in relation to his work in Slovakia.