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Pre-trial hearing opens in case of murdered Slovak reporter

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Bratislava (AFP)

A hearing ahead of a long-awaited trial of Slovak businessman Marian Kocner, suspected of ordering the 2018 assassination of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, started Thursday under tight security.

Relatives of the victims -- Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova -- were present for the hearing, coming face-to-face with the millionaire property developer for the first time.

Kocner, 56, was wearing a bulletproof vest and a helmet as he arrived at the Special Criminal Court, watched by riot police.

Three of his four co-defendants, Alena Zsuzsova, Tomas Szabo and Miroslav Marcek, also appeared in the court in Pezinok, a town some 20 kilometres (12 miles) outside the capital Bratislava.

Zoltan A., who allegedly acted as an intermediary, has made a plea bargain pending court approval and was not present. He may be tried separately.

Kuciak had been investigating Kocner's business activities when he and Kusnirova were gunned down at home near Bratislava in a gangland-style hit in February 2018.

The double homicide triggered mass anti-government protests that forced then-premier Robert Fico to resign and paved the way for the election of liberal anti-corruption activist Zuzana Caputova as president in March.

Prosecutors have charged Kocner with ordering Kuciak's assassination.

- 'Any dirt' -

A three-judge panel led by Ruzena Sabova will examine the charges and the legality of the evidence, the local TASR newswire said. If serious procedural errors are found, the court can refer the charges back to the prosecutor who pressed the charges.

Otherwise, the court will set a date for launching the trial.

According to the 93-page indictment, which was leaked to local media, Kocner failed to find "any dirt" on the journalist to discredit him, which led the accused "to decide to get rid of Jan Kuciak physically and thus prevent further disclosure of his (Kocner's) activities".

If convicted, Kocner faces a minimum of 25 years in jail but could be imprisoned for life, Jana Tokolyova, a spokeswoman for the special prosecutor's office, told AFP earlier.

Kocner, who is also under investigation for his role in several cases of suspected fraud, has a reputation for hostility towards journalists.

In 2017, he told a news conference that he planned to create a website to publish details on journalists' private lives, according to the SME daily.

He threatened Kuciak and his family during a recorded telephone conversation, the audio of which was released by the journalist's online employer, aktuality.sk.

Investigators have revealed that Kocner exchanged thousands of messages with senior government officials from the ruling Smer-SD party.

Former prime minister and Smer chairman Robert Fico blamed the opposition and the media for linking his party to Kocner, telling reporters that their coverage against the party was "turning into a kind of jihad".

Fico remains the party leader and is widely seen as still pulling the strings.

Bratislava-based analyst Pavol Babos told AFP that "Robert Fico is definitely losing coalition potential" in the lead-up to a February general election.

"I cannot imagine political parties entering into a coalition with Smer-SD," Babos said.

Support for Smer-SD has dropped to a historic low of around 20 percent, but it is still poised to win the poll.

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