21 February 2018
Veľká Mača, Slovakia
Exposure of illegal activity
Their murders are among the most tragic and controversial events to have taken place in Europe in recent decades. Before investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, (both 27) were killed, there’d been no immediate sign that someone was targeting them. Slovak police records, however, show that the assassins had been preparing the hit for at least two weeks.
The perpetrators were named as Zoltán Andruskó, a local pizzeria operator; Tomáš Szabó, a local policeman; and Miroslav Marček, a former soldier. Andruskó told the police that he had been approached by Alena Zsuzsová, an Italian translator, who had offered him €70 000 (€50 000 in cash and €20 000 in debt forgiveness) in exchange for killing Kuciak. Zsuzsová had, in turn, been hired by Marian Kočner, an influential Slovak businessman with alleged ties to organized crime.
Andruskó informed the police that he had then expanded the team to include Szabó and Marček because he didn’t know how to kill a person himself. Although the direct order was to murder Kuciak, the assassins did not spare his fiancée as the two were spending the evening together at the house they had recently bought. The murders were carried out so quickly and quietly that nobody in the tiny municipality of Veľká Mača, 60 kilometres from Bratislava, in south-west Slovakia, noticed the gruesome crime being committed in their neighbourhood.
The bodies of Kuciak and Kušnírová were discovered four days later, after Kušnírová’s mother, Zlata, worried because her daughter wasn’t answering her phone calls, contacted Kuciak’s parents and alerted the police. An hour after receiving Zlata’s call, the police went to the house. By the time Zlata had reached Veľká Mača, the Kuciak family was already there; they were crying, barely able to utter a word. ‘Then a police officer … said, “Oh, there she is, the woman from the east, the mother of the murdered girl.” That’s how I learned Martina was murdered,’ Zlata told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). ‘I was out of my mind.’
Although it was the first targeted killing of a journalist in Slovakia, the incident happened just four months after the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. This fact escalated the level of shock felt in Slovakia, and beyond, as here was another case confirming that the security of journalists was seriously deteriorating in EU countries.
The murders also sparked major protests. On 2 March, thousands of people took to the streets in Bratislava. A week later, the protests spread to 48 cities in Slovakia and 17 cities worldwide; 60 000 people protested in Bratislava alone, making it the biggest demonstration since the Velvet Revolution, which marked the fall of communism in Slovakia in 1989. The murders dominated the news for weeks, and the rage of citizens, together with a growing political crisis, led to some government officials – including Prime Minister Robert Fico, several ministers and high-level police officers – resigning.
According to Marek Vagovič, Kuciak’s fellow journalist and editor, these deaths dramatically changed public opinion in Slovakia and have politically awakened Slovaks. People are particularly disgusted by the cruelty directed at such a young, loving couple. ‘I am convinced that most people no longer want to live in a country that is ruled by corrupt politicians, oligarchs and mafias. I believe that this will also be reflected in the upcoming presidential elections and in the parliamentary elections in 2020,’ Vagovič told the author.
But Kuciak wasn’t a revolutionary type of person. He had a mild and peaceful personality, and his biography would have looked like that of many other Slovakians. As Vagovič said, despite his mellow nature, Kuciak had stood out as a rare investigative talent from the start. ‘I met Ján Kuciak at the training for junior investigative journalists,’ he said. ‘Very quickly it became clear to me that he has an extraordinary talent; such journalists in Slovakia get born once in 20 years.’
Vagovič and Kuciak began to collaborate, and in 2015, together with two of their colleagues, they launched a portal for investigative journalism at Aktuality.sk.
‘Ján was very precise when it came to fact checking,’ Vagovič said, describing Kuciak as a reliable, patient, focused and courageous journalist. ‘Privately, he was a very pleasant, modest and humble person, who dreamt about a time when all criminals would pay for their deeds.’
Before Kuciak was killed, he was investigating the influence of the Italian mafia in Slovakia, working in collaboration with Czech and Italian investigative reporters under the mentorship of the OCCRP. He was particularly interested in the ’Ndrangheta, a notorious Calabria-based organized-crime group that dominates the European cocaine market. Kuciak was investigating links between the ’Ndrangheta and Fico and his secretary, former beauty-contest winner Mária Trošková. According to OCCRP findings, Trošková was a business partner of a Slovakia-based Italian with direct links to the ’Ndrangheta. Many suspected that Kuciak was murdered because he had discovered some important details about the ’Ndrangheta in Slovakia. Nobody was paying attention to the fact that Kuciak had also written dozens of articles on financial crime, including VAT fraud, for which one of the main suspects was Kočner.
Although, at first, the majority of people blamed the Italian mafia for the murders, the prosecutor charged Kočner with ordering it. Allegedly, Kočner was friendly with both Fico and the head of the National Criminal Agency’s anti-corruption unit, Róbert Krajmer. There is material proof that Kočner was in touch with a Slovakia-based member of the Italian mafia, Antonino Vadala, who is currently serving a jail sentence for drug smuggling. Vadala was also a business partner of Trošková.
A couple of months before Kuciak was murdered, he was tipped off that Kočner was angered by some of the articles he had written. He had a threatening phone conversation with Kočner, which he relayed on Facebook in October 2017 and then reported to the police, but no steps were taken against Kočner in this regard.
Having worked closely with Kuciak and therefore being familiar with Kočner’s profile, Vagovič said that he’d never thought Kočner would be capable of ordering a hit, and was shocked when the prosecutor informed him that Kočner has been charged with ordering the murder. ‘I’d always considered him as a poser who is only pretending to be a tough guy so that others would be afraid and get out of his way,’ said Vagovič. Kočner at this time was already in custody after being charged with having committed financial crimes.
All revelations concerning the case were made two days before voting in the Slovakian presidential election took place on 8 March 2019. It was difficult to predict if the news would influence the polls, but the results revealed a decline in support for the government-backed candidate. It is also clear that, since the murders, support for Fico’s party, Direction – Social Democracy (Smer-SD), has fallen dramatically. Vagovič said that politicians from the Smer-SD persist in attacking the media and accusing them of organizing support for a coup.
But the police and the prosecutor have proven professional and responsible in their conduct. ‘In September 2018, charges were brought against the assassins; and in March 2019, Kočner was charged with ordering the murder,’ Vagovič said. ‘I strongly believe that [those responsible] will be brought to justice and be sentenced with high penalties.’
In the meantime, the families of Kuciak and Kušnírová are struggling to cope with the loss. Jozef Kuciak, Ján’s brother, told the OCCRP that he can barely recall the events of the past year, that it all feels like a bad dream. And one year after the tragedy, Zlata Kušnírová continues to visit the house in Veľká Mača. ‘Even the last time, when I visited Veľká Mača, I took one of Martina’s dirty socks from the laundry,’ she told the OCCRP. ‘I wanted to hold it tight, close to me, to have a piece of Martina with me for at least a little moment.’
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