Businessman acquitted in murders of Slovak reporter, fiancee

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Marian Kocner, center, the suspected mastermind in the slaying of an investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, who were shot dead in their home on Feb. 21, 2018, is escorted by armed police officers to a courtroom for a trial session in Pezinok in Pezinok, Slovakia, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

PEZINOK – A panel of judges in Slovakia on Thursday acquitted a businessman accused of masterminding the 2018 slayings of an investigative journalist who had written about him and the journalist's fiancee.

The judges cleared the businessman, Marian Kocner, and one co-defendant of murder in the killings of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, both 27.

Judge Ruzena Sabova at the Specialized Criminal Court in Pezinok said there was not enough evidence for the convictions. A third defendant was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Within hours, prosecutors appealed the verdicts in the country's Supreme Court.

The International Press Institute, an international media freedom group based in Vienna, called the acquittals “a major setback for justice and the fight against impunity."

“We are hugely disappointed by this verdict, which repeats a tragic pattern we see worldwide: the hit men go to jail while those ultimately responsible for the murder of journalists remain free," said International Press Institute Deputy Director Scott Griffen, who attended the trial.

The parents of Kuciak and Kusnirova left the courtroom before the reading of the sentence was completed.

“The only thing I can say is I’m disgusted,” the journalist's father, Jozef Kuciak, told reporters.

Kuciak was shot in the chest and Kusnirova was shot in the head at their home in the town of Velka Maca, east of Bratislava, on Feb. 21, 2018.