By Robert Muller
PEZINOK, Slovakia (Reuters) - A Slovak businessman and three others will appear in court for the first time on Thursday charged over the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, a case that triggered mass protests against graft in the central European state.
Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova, both 27, were gunned down in their house outside the capital Bratislava in February 2018.
Prosecutors say entrepreneur Marian Kocner, a subject of Kuciak’s reporting on fraud cases involving politically connected businessmen, had contracted his killing.
Kocner and two alleged accomplices have pleaded not guilty while the fourth suspect has confessed to the shooting itself, according to public television RTVS, quoting police sources. They face up to life in prison if convicted.
A fifth man has confessed to facilitating the killing and has made a plea deal with prosecutors to act as a witness.
At a preliminary hearing in the town of Pezinok north of Bratislava, judges will either set the date for the trial or ask prosecutors to submit more evidence first.
The murders stoked public anger over perceived corruption in Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million people, leading to the biggest protests since communism ended three decades earlier.
The case is seen as a test of Slovak police and judicial independence given that the investigation exposed business and personal links between Kocner and security officials.
Prosecutors said in August they had extracted tens of thousands of messages from Kocner’s phone containing communication with "representatives of state bodies and the justice system".
The revelations led to a number of resignations of senior officials in the past weeks, including a deputy parliament speaker, a deputy minister, two prosecutors and a judge. All denied any connection to the murders.
Slovakia's former chief prosecutor was charged this week with abuse of power for hiding recordings from a secret service operation which also involved Kocner. [L8N28S3TE]
Mass protests forced Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign last year. He was replaced by a party ally and his leftist, socially conservative Smer party still leads the government as it has for 11 out of the past 13 years.
Smer's popular support has waned but it still tops opinion polls, although a wide collection of opposition parties could nudge it out of power in the Feb. 29 election.
(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2019 06:10:56 IST