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Slovak entrepreneur charged with ordering journalist murder

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Bratislava (AFP)

Slovak prosecutors said Thursday they had charged entrepreneur Marian Kocner with ordering the murder of an investigative journalist whose killing during a corruption probe triggered mass protests and toppled the country's prime minister.

Journalist Jan Kuciak had been investigating Kocner's business activities at the time of his death, one of several stories he had been working on when he was gunned down with his fiancee Martina Kusnirova at home in February 2018.

"The reason for the murder was the journalistic work of the victim," a special prosecutor, who was left unnamed for security reasons, told reporters.

The prosecutor said Kocner, who has a number of property development and investment businesses, was charged on March 8 with "ordering the murder". Four others have already been charged over the murders.

The announcement comes just two days before the eurozone member's presidential election and analysts say it may affect the result of the poll.

Kuciak's gangland style murder and the journalist's last explosive report -- published posthumously and unrelated to Kocner -- sent shockwaves through the country.

The investigation alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.

Tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against corruption and threats to media freedom, piling pressure on then-prime minister Robert Fico, who was forced to resign, although he remains the leader of the ruling populist-left Smer-SD party.

To mark the first anniversary of Kuciak's death, around 30,000 people marched in Bratislava on February 25 this year, while thousands of others rallied in dozens of other cities across Slovakia.

- 'Calling for change' -

Slovaks will vote Saturday in round one of the presidential ballot, which is seen as a crucial test for the Smer-SD before next year's general election.

Presidential frontrunner Zuzana Caputova is a vocal government critic who was a high-profile figure at the demonstrations after the murders.

Caputova has vowed to restore public trust in the state, running on a slogan of "Let us stand up to evil".

"People are calling for change," she told AFP ahead of the March 16 first round vote.

Opinion polls give her a double-digit lead over her main rival, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic. The career diplomat is running as an independent but has backing from the Smer-SD.

Analysts say it is unclear how the Kocner news will affect the presidential ballot.

"With this announcement, the authorities may have wanted to show just how effectively the state functions, so it could help Sefcovic gain some points," Bratislava-based analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP.

"On the other hand, this could also be vindication for Caputova, as she is the symbol of change," he added.

Meseznikov said widespread protests had pressured authorities into conducting a thorough investigation of the murders.

- Reporter 'threatened' -

Last year, prosecutors charged four suspects in connection with the murders, including a woman identified as Alena Zs.

Local media reported that Alena Zs had worked as an interpreter for Kocner, who is believed to have ties to members of Smer-SD.

Peter Bardy, Kuciak's editor-in-chief at the aktuality.sk news website, claimed in September 2017 that Kocner had called Kuciak to threaten him.

Kocner had vowed to set up a website publishing information on reporters' private lives, according to the leading SME daily.

The 55-year-old multimillionaire, who owns more than a dozen companies, was detained by police in June on suspicion of fraud. He is still in custody.

"It is not excluded that further individuals will be accused of participating in the murder," the special prosecutor said Thursday.

The prosecutor added that "we do not yet have the weapon but we have evidence as to what kind of weapon it was".

Slovakia ranked 27 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index 2018, falling ten places in a year.

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