Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, were shot and killed on February 21, 2018. The journalist was shot in the chest, and his fiancée was shot in the head at their house in Velká Mača, a city 50 kilometers from the capital Bratislava. Their bodies were found on February 25.
As of May 2023, four people have been convicted and sentenced to prison for the murders, including the alleged intermediary, who filed an appeal. The suspected mastermind was acquitted in May 2023, and Kuciak’s family said that they would appeal the verdict.
Bratislava police quickly established the killings as murders, which then-Chief of Police Tibor Gašpar said were "most likely" linked to the journalist’s work. Kuciak worked for the news website Aktuality, where he reported on government corruption and investigated tax fraud associated with individuals close to the ruling social democratic party Smer.
Before his death, Kuciak worked with the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Aktuality on an investigation into an Italian mafia group, ‘Ndragheta, and their incursions into Slovakia. 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.
Kuciak had previously reported to police that he had received threats in 2017 from Marián Kočner, a businessperson about whom Kuciak had written. “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.
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.
In June 2018, Slovakia’s National Criminal Agency detained Kočner on charges that included tax fraud in an incident unrelated to Kuciak’s murder. He denied any involvement in the murders.
In September, authorities charged four people with the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová. Among the detainees was a woman, identified by her initials, A.Z., who was allegedly connected to Kočner, ordered the murder, and paid 70,000 euros (US$80,000) for it.
A series of protests were held in Bratislava and other Slovak cities in 2018, 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.
On December 6, 2018, CPJ met with Slovakia’s Interior Ministry and police officials on a press freedom mission to Bratislava. Authorities said they were pursuing all lines of inquiry to establish who ordered the murders. In February 2019, CPJ met with the office of the special prosecutors in charge of the Kuciak investigation and Ministry of Interior officials, and urged Slovak officials to expedite charges against all involved parties.
In March 2019, special prosecutors charged Kočner with ordering Kuciak’s murder. Kočner had been in detention on unrelated financial fraud charges since June 2018.
In October 2019, the Special Prosecutor’s Office indicted four people, including Kočner, in the killing. The other suspects named were Alena Zsuzsová (identified previously as A.Z.), Miroslav Marček, and Tomáš Szabó. Reports said that prosecutors believe Kočner was the mastermind, Zsuzsová ordered the murder, and Marček acted as a driver for the shooter–his cousin and former police officer Szabó.
In October, a fifth person, Zoltán Andruskó, who was involved in planning the killing, reached a deal with the investigators to testify against Kočner, and in December 2019, a special court in the city of Pezinok sentenced Andruskó to 15 years in prison for the premeditated murder of Kuciak.
In April 2020, the same court sentenced Marček to 23 years for murder, and in December, the Slovak Supreme Court increased Marček’s sentence to 25 years after prosecutors challenged the lower court decision.
In September 2020, the special court in Pezinok found Kočner not guilty of ordering the murders and acquitted Zsuzsová of involvement in organizing the murders, citing a lack of evidence in both cases. The same court sentenced Szabó, the shooter, to 25 years for the killing.
In June 2021, the Slovak Supreme Court ordered a new trial and confirmed Szabó’s conviction.
In May 2023, a retrial held by the special court in Pezinok acquitted Kočner a second time but convicted Zsuzsová and sentenced her to 25 years in prison. The verdict is subject to appeal. Kočner and Zsuzsová deny the charges and were serving prison sentences on other charges as of May 2023.
Kuciak was the first journalist killed in relation to his work in Slovakia that CPJ has documented.