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Outcry after Slovak court clears businessman in journalist's murder

Public hearing for Marian Kocner and Tomas Szabo at the Slovak Supreme Court

By Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka

(Reuters) -A Slovak court on Friday cleared a businessman for the second time of orchestrating the 2018 murder of an investigative journalist, in a case that had shaken the country and triggered mass protests against graft.

Marian Kocner was alleged to have ordered the killings of Jan Kuciak, 27, and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, a crime over which four other people, including Kocner's associate Alena Zsuzsova, have been sentenced.

Kocner, 60, has repeatedly pleaded not guilty, and said in closing remarks in the trial last week: "I am not a saint but I am not a murderer."

But journalists at the trial reported that the victims' families walked out of the Specialised Criminal Court in Pezinok in protest after the judge cleared Kocner, in a verdict streamed live by news website

The court had reached the same verdict in 2020, citing a lack of evidence, but the Supreme Court ordered a retrial. The new verdict can again be appealed.

Kuciak and Kusnirova's deaths sparked mass protests in the European Union country that forced long-time leader Robert Fico to step down as prime minister, ushering in a new government in 2020 that had campaigned on cleaning up corruption and sleaze.

However, the coalition that defeated Fico's Smer party has fallen after years of infighting and Smer now leads opinion polls ahead of an early election on Sept. 30.

HIRED HITMAN

Kuciak and Kusnirova were shot dead at their house outside Bratislava by hired hitman Miroslav Marcek, who was handed a 23-year sentence in 2020. Two others were also convicted that year.

Zsuzsova, 48, was found guilty for her part in planning the murders, as well as the intended killings of three prosecutors, and given a 25-year sentence on Friday.

"I absolutely don't understand this. Zsuzsova found guilty, Kocner innocent," Kuciak's father, Jozef Kuciak, said on SME's live broadcast outside the court.

"Shame on our judiciary," added Kusnirova's mother, Zlatica Kusnirova.

Kuciak had investigated relations between politicians and business, including the Italian mafia. According to evidence presented at the trial, Kocner had verbally threatened Kuciak, who had probed his business practices.

The case tried on Friday also involved accusations Kocner had ordered the murders of three prosecutors which were not carried out. Kocner was sentenced to 19 years in 2020 in an unrelated fraud case and has been serving that sentence.

Reporters Without Borders called Friday's verdict a "debacle".

"The verdict leaves a bitter taste," it said in a statement. "Full justice has not been served."

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Robert Muller in Prague; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Andrew Cawthorne and John Stonestreet)