A court has found businessman Marian Kocner not guilty of ordering the killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018, in an attack that rocked Slovakia.
The murders triggered mass protests, leading to the downfall of populist PM Robert Fico’s government.
Another man has been jailed for 25 years for taking part in the murder.
But judges found that prosecutors had failed to prove Kocner and a third defendant had ordered the killings.
Their acquittals were announced by the court in Pezinok, north of the capital Bratislava.
“The crime was committed but it has not been proved that Marian Kocner and Alena Zsuzsova ordered the murder,” Judge Ruzena Sabova said in her ruling.
“The court therefore acquits the defendants.”She ordered Kocner to pay €5,000 fine (£4,454; $5,909) for possessing illegal weapons, after 60 bullets had been found in the businessman’s house.
According to the BBC correspondent Rob Cameron, the judge had not even finished reading out her verdict when relatives of Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova left the courtroom.
He says that prosecutors are likely to appeal against the not-guilty verdict, which came as a surprise,Kocner, 57, has always denied any involvement.”
I am not a saint, but I am not a murderer either. I’m certainly not a fool who wouldn’t realise what a journalist’s murder would lead to,” he told jurors during the trial.
Kocner will remain in prison after being sentenced this February to 19 years for forgery in an unrelated case.
Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were shot dead in their house near Bratislava on 21 February 2018, in the first such targeted killing of a journalist in Slovak history.
They were both 27.In April, former soldier Miroslav Marcek was jailed for 23 years after admitting to carrying out the killings and another suspect was jailed for facilitating the attack.
Kuciak worked for aktuality.sk as an investigative reporter. He wrote about corrupt businessmen in Slovakia, EU subsidy and VAT fraud, as well as Italy’s notorious ’Ndrangheta mafia and its attempts to cultivate relationships with Slovak politicians.
Kocner featured prominently in Kuciak’s articles.