Scandal Strikes at the Heart of Europe, by Brendan Oswald

Ján Kuciak | by | December 10, 2019 |

Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kušnírová, were killed almost two years ago. The murders were part of a state-sanctioned push to silence an investigation into government corruption.Photo: Peter Tkac.

Slovakia doesn’t usually do bloodshed, conflict, or high drama. This small country of five million at the heart of Europe has no modern history of conflict, having peacefully thrown off the shackles of communism via the Velvet Revolution.

However, Slovakia’s self-image as a peaceful, law-abiding nation has taken several shocks in the last couple of years. The country has become mired in a scandal involving embezzlement, bribery, and murder, which led to the downfall of prominent government ministers, several high court judges, a former prosecutor general, and even the prime minister.

Two years have now passed since the brutal murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kušnírová, at their home in western Slovakia. The murder was a contract killing intended to silence Kuciak’s investigation into the misuse of European Union funds, a racket involving government ministers, dubious businessmen, and the Italian crime organization the ’Ndrangheta

Rather than silence, however, the murder prompted the largest street demonstrations seen in Slovakia since the Velvet Revolution, creating a new political movement, “For A Decent Slovakia,” and compelled the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico along with other prominent members of his government.

Kuciak’s investigation implicated two members of Fico’s inner circle: Viliam Jasaň, a deputy and the secretary of the State Security Council of Slovakia, and Mária Trošková, a former model who became Fico’s chief adviser. They both stepped down immediately, with Fico following soon after in March 2018.

Many thought Fico had been soft-pedaling on the investigations into the murders of Kuciak and Kušnírová, but the public outcry ensured the redoubling of efforts to catch the killers. Suspicion fell immediately on a well-connected businessman, Marian Kočner, who had previously threatened Kuciak for investigating his business dealings. 

“You can be sure that I will start paying special attention to you personally, Mr. Kuciak,” Kočner told the young reporter a few months before his murder.

In September 2018, SWAT teams arrested eight people suspected of participating in the double murder. Some were later released without charge, but the rest remained in custody as investigations continued.

Kočner was already in prison by mid-2018, awaiting trial on unrelated fraud charges of forging promissory notes worth some 69 million euros.

The murder prompted the largest street demonstrations seen in Slovakia since the Velvet Revolution, creating a new political movement, “For A Decent Slovakia.”

One arrestee, Zoltán Andruskó, who acted as a fixer for the murders, cooperated with police from the outset. He negotiated a plea bargain limiting his prison time to eight to sixteen years in return for providing evidence against his co-conspirators.

Besides Andruskó, four people have now been charged with the murders, and the trial date has been set for December 19. Kočner is accused of paying for and ordering the killings. Alena Zsuzsová, a Kočner associate well connected to politicians, allegedly arranged the murder, providing Andruskó with a name, pictures, and a home address for Kuciak. Andruskó then passed the information along to the two hitmen, Miroslav Marček and Tomáš Szabó.

But this was by no means the end of the story. Slovak media has released a steady flow of revelations since then.

In a key development, former Kočner associate Peter Tóth handed a phone previously used by Kočner to investigators. Kočner had used the highly encrypted Threema service, a platform similar to WhatsApp. The police were able to de-encrypt the messages, unearthing damning evidence of a web of corruption woven around Kočner over many years.

The app showed thousands of contacts between Kočner and prominent politicians, judges, and senior law enforcement officers from September 2017 through May 2018. Many details have not yet been released, but what has gotten out so far has led to a raft of resignations and calls for more.

One of the biggest names to go was Monica Jankovska, state secretary at the Ministry of Justice, who resigned from her post in September 2019. She initially denied knowing Kočner, but the Threema app revealed that they had messaged each other at least a thousand times, including in the period while he was being investigated for fraud in 2018. 

The daily newspaper Denník N obtained copies of some of the messages. They show Kočner pressuring Jankovská to intercede in the fraud proceedings in his favour. While Jankovská dismissed the messages as a “big hoax,” new Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová labeled the suspicions, if confirmed, as “evidence of the worst failure of justice.”

Another government official to feel the heat was Deputy Speaker Martin Glváč. Again there was a denial, followed by a flurry of evidence proving it false. The evidence shows not only that Glváč was in regular contact with Kočner, but also that he communicated with Alena Zsuzsová, the woman accused of arranging Jan Kuciak’s murder. He eventually resigned on November 7.

Many of the de-encrypted messages released so far show Kočner and accomplices discussing interference in political appointments or legal proceedings. One key associate was Dobroslav Trnka, the Slovakian prosecutor general from 2004 to 2011.

In October, current Prosecutor General Jarosmír Čižnár temporarily suspended Trnka from his present role as a prosecutor after a video leaked to the Czech website showed Kočner and Trnka installing a hidden camera in Trnka’s former office, thought to be for the purposes of blackmail.

These revelations show that Kočner was the go-to guy for those who wanted to influence government action or get the results you wanted in the law courts. Kočner seems to have some important judges in his pocket, and seven judges have stepped down while an investigation into their connections with Kočner is carried out.

As painful as Ján Kuciak’s death has been for Slovakia, some good may yet come from the shocking revelations that have emerged since. The judiciary is showing clear signs of a willingness to purge itself of corrupt actors.

Slovakia’s constitution creates a clear division between the legal and political branches. The arrangement is sensible in theory but left Slovakia in a position where a corrupt judiciary was responsible for selecting its members and policing itself. The policing was clearly not happening, as the Threema scandal has shown.

Now clean judges are crying “enough.” They have formed an independent initiative called For Open Justice. Co-founder of this initiative, Supreme Court judge Elena Berthotyová, tells The Progressive in an interview that “efforts to interfere with the work of police, prosecutors and courts will continue as long as individuals and organised crime find allies in their ranks.”

For Open Justice galvanised public pressure to force a Special Commission, chaired by Berthotyová, looking into the conduct of the judges who communicated with Kočner via the Threema app. The group has also called for the resignation of acting President of the Supreme Court of Slovakia Jarmila Urbancová, who also communicated with Kočner.

So far, Urbancová has refused to stand down, but Berthotyová is determined to keep the pressure on. “We wanted to distance ourselves from judges abusing their position and we wanted to send a clear signal to the public, that we are able to start the process of judicial cleansing,” she says. “This is essential for the public trust that we need. Trust is the most precious thing that a judge has.”

The tide is turning against corruption, and Michal Piško from Transparency International Slovakia sees reason for optimism. He says in an interview, “Thanks to this investigation we know much more about the poisonous connections and wrongdoing amongst high-ranking officials. It’s horrible to say, but thanks to these murders there have been signs of improvement.”

It sometimes takes a tragedy to shake a country out of its slumber, and the murder of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová has certainly done that. The acid test will be next February’s parliamentary elections. Although they currently trail in the polls, the re-election of the ruling Smer party and the return of ousted Premier Robert Fico cannot be ruled out.  

Piško sees the election as a turning point: “The current government is closely connected to corruption. If they won again, all the energy and momentum of the anti-corruption movement would be lost.” 

But if the energy can be retained and corruption properly rooted out, then Slovakia can take the last few steps it embarked upon thirty years ago last month when it overthrew the Communist regime in the Velvet Revolution.

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