Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Can Slovakia’s justice system pass its big test?

Thousands of people take part in a protest rally 'For a Decent Slovakia' on the anniversary of the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak in the capital Bratislava.

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Two years ago, on the evening of February 21, a contract killer slipped into the house of the young journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiance Martina Kusnirova and fatally shot them.

The aftershocks have rocked Slovakia to its core. The largest demonstrations since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 filled the streets of the capital, Bratislava, and the nation’s politics have never been the same. In January, the alleged perpetrators have been giving testimony in a highly anticipated case that could bring some closure.

“The Kuciak case is the most important judicial case in the modern history of Slovakia,” said Vladimir Bartovic, director of the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy, a think tank.

Slovakia is rooting hard for a conviction of the man alleged to be the mastermind behind the killing, Marian Kocner, a businessman who also faces separate charges, including forgery of promissory notes. Kuciak’s investigative reports for news portal helped expose some of Kocner’s alleged crimes, including the takeover of a public television station. Kocner never took kindly to the reporting. At one point, he threatened Kuciak and his family over the phone: “I’ll be looking especially into you, your mother, your father and your siblings.”

And yet, in spite of the brazenness of the murder and the unvarnished anger it unleashed, prosecutors are far from guaranteed to secure Kocner’s conviction. They need evidence that directly incriminates him, but so far it isn’t clear whether enough has surfaced or is forthcoming. Video footage shows Kocner withdrawing a large sum of money from a bank, while SIM card data from his cellphone and the cellphone of an alleged accomplice, Alena Zsuzsova, later places them within about 200 meters of one another — probably to exchange the money as payment for the murder.

Just ahead of the trial, an editorial in one of Slovakia’s largest daily newspapers, Sme, suggested it was unlikely Kocner would be found guilty. 

As the trial proceeds, the odds that Kocner will be found guilty have grown. Two of five defendants have confessed: Miroslav Marcek, a former soldier who pulled the trigger, and Zoltan Andrusko, a former policeman. Andrusko helped convey key information from Zsuzsova to Marcek and another man; he now says that Zsuzsova told him that Kocner had ordered the hit. But Zsuzsova has denied this, as has Kocner. Unless more details are forthcoming, it may prove impossible to establish a direct, unequivocal link between Kocner and the murders.

That raises a question that if Kocner goes free, will it all have been for nought?

Doubtless, if prosecutors obtain convictions for Kocner and the two others who have not yet confessed, it is certain to be hailed as a victory for Slovakia’s justice system. Slovakia has a long history of failing to convert damning allegations into jail time, which helps explain the results of a Eurobaromoter survey from December in which Slovakia ranked second-to-last in the EU in its trust of the legal system. As many as 72% of Slovaks distrust their legal system, lower only than Croatia’s 76%. 

Yet to let this case, however symbolically important, serve as the only bellwether of Slovakia’s justice system would be shortsighted, experts say. There is far more to be investigated than just the Kuciak case, they say.

“The real problem is selective justice,” says Grigorij Meseznikov, director of the Institute for Public Affairs. The Kuciak case is so “spectacular” and has attracted so much attention, Meseznikov said, that it would be difficult for anyone to stop it. “But in many other cases, known cases — distribution of public funds, tax fraud, and so on — no evidence is investigated…The true test will be when less exceptional cases are efficiently investigated.” 

Gabriel Sipos, director of Transparency International Slovakia, agreed. “The key question is…whether law enforcement can actually start dealing out justice every time something is done wrong,” he said. “Fair judgment in this case together with the punishment of corrupt judges and prosecutors related to Kočner should represent a start of the cleansing process of Slovak justice.”

New questions about Slovakia’s willingness to stare down its demons recently thrust themselves into the conversation.

On January 16, as hearings in the Kuciak case were underway in the town of Pezinok, police from the National Criminal Agency (NAKA) detained a man named Dobroslav Trnka, Slovakia’s former general prosecutor. The reason, police said, was a leaked video showing Trnka, perhaps in 2009, speaking with Jan Pociatek, former finance minister of the powerful leftwing Smer party. In the video, Trnka agrees to try to downplay the fallout from a scandal over a lawsuit against the state’s lottery company, Tipos, which had proved damaging to Smer.

Then, following a decision from the Special Prosecutor’s Office, Trnka was released the next day. Little explanation accompanied the decision, except that officials had determined the evidence didn’t show Trnka had abused his powers as a public official. Leaders of opposition parties decried Trnka’s sudden release — his detention had been hailed by some only the previous day as a victory for the independence of Slovakia’s justice system — and Slovakia’s president, Zuzana Caputova, asked the current general prosecutor and the police chief to explain their decision.

Trnka himself looked wearied by the whole affair. “Read about it in the tabloids tomorrow,” he told journalists.

Potential alliance with the far-right

Many close observers of Slovak politics — including every corruption expert interviewed for this piece — say that truly restoring the credibility of Slovakia’s justice system will only be accomplished through political change. Only when fresh faces occupy top government posts, their reasoning goes, can there be something close to certainty that those officials will feel free to undertake all the investigations that they see fit without risk of interference. In other words, long-serving officials may be too exposed.

To illustrate this, Sipos referenced the Kuciak case.

“If he (Kocner) started to talk, he could implicate a lot of people,” Sipos said. “There are a lot of people who are interested in him going free. There might be dozens of other issues, taxes, and etc. You have to realise that this is the way law enforcement works.”

With parliamentary elections in February, there is a big opportunity for political change around the corner.

“If a pro-reform coalition is formed after February’s parliamentary elections, and it subsequently elects a trustworthy general and special prosecutor, and big scandals other than the Kuciak murder are investigated,” said Lukas Fila, publisher of one of Slovakia’s two main daily papers, Dennik N, “then public trust can improve even if Kočner personally is not convicted for the murder.”

New polls suggest that a pro-reform coalition may not be in the works.

A mid-January survey found Slovakia’s far-right party, Kotlebovci – People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS), in second place with the support of around 11% of voters, behind only Smer. That result — which echoes other recent surveys — has caused a fresh round of hand-wringing. It has also raised the possibility that Smer would enter a coalition with L’SNS, since several of the other well-performing parties have ruled out joining Smer. Prime minister Peter Pellegrini has said that option is off the table, but some local newspapers columnists have begun to anticipate just that scenario.

L’SNS is still a relatively unfamiliar entry in the ranks of central European populist parties. But observers have begun to pay more attention lately, especially to its leader, Marian Kotleba, who has praised the former Slovak Nazi puppet state. Kotleba is not what most have in mind when they envision a crop of fresh faces to sit in government.

According to Fila, the Dennik N publisher: “On the other hand, if the new government is formed by parties with ties to the mafia and neo-Nazis, who fill all the important posts with their people, even a conviction in (the Kuciak case) will not have a decisive impact on the trustworthiness of the judiciary.” 

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