September 27, 2018 / 6:54 AM / 2 months ago

Slovak police detain suspects over journalist murder: media, lawyer

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovak police have detained people suspected of the murder of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Slovak media outlets reported on Thursday, citing police sources.

FILE PHOTO: A man attends a protest rally in reaction to the murder of Slovak investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, in Bratislava, Slovakia April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa/File Photo

The news was confirmed by a lawyer for the family of Kuciak, whose killing seven months ago rocked the central European country, stoking anger over public corruption and sparking the biggest street protests since the fall of communism in 1989.

“In the early morning hours today police detained suspects in the premeditated murder of Jan Kuciak and (his fiancee) Martina Kusnirova,” lawyer Daniel Lipsic said on Facebook.

He told Reuters by text message that he had been briefed by prosecutors.

Lipsic later told the website of daily newspaper SME that he was convinced there was enough evidence to justify keeping the suspects in custody.

Local media reported that eight people were being held. Reuters could not immediately verify that number.

The police said earlier on its Facebook page it had detained persons suspected of a violent crime and was carrying out home searches but did not say in which case. A spokesman declined to comment further.

Media, including SME and Aktuality.sk, where Kuciak had worked, reported police were carrying out home searches in the south of the country.

Kuciak had, among other things, investigated fraud cases involving businessmen with Slovak political ties. He had also looked into suspected mafia links between Italy and businesses in Slovakia.

Kuciak was found shot dead along with Kusnirova at their home outside Bratislava in February. They were both 27.

In his final story, published posthumously, he reported on an Italian living in Slovakia with past business links to two Slovaks who later worked in then-prime minister Robert Fico’s office.

Both of the Slovaks resigned but deny connections to the murder. Their Italian former business partner has also denied having connections with the mafia and the murder but was detained on a European drug trafficking warrant in March and extradited to Italy in May.

PROGRESS WELCOMED

Weeks of public protests in March eventually forced the departure of long-serving leader Fico and his interior minister Robert Kalinak, as well as police chief Tibor Gaspar.

However, Fico’s three-party government coalition has remained in power under Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, who comes from the ruling Smer party which Fico still leads.

Pellegrini welcomed news of the detentions in a social media post on Thursday. A spokeswoman said the prime minister had no official information on the police action.

“The investigation and punishment of those guilty of this murder is one of the priorities of my government,” Pellegrini wrote.

The investigation is the biggest in the country’s history. Interior Minister Denisa Sakova said on Thursday investigators had interviewed more than 200 people.

Slideshow (2 Images)

A prosecutor said in March the murder was likely to have been a contract killing related to Kuciak’s work. Police released this month a sketch of a possible witness and said they had narrowed down possible motives to two.

While demonstrations are no longer being held regularly in the country of 5.4 million, organizers of the protests that numbered in the tens of thousands in March and April have vowed to keep up pressure on the government and to ensure a thorough investigation.

They said on Thursday that while they welcomed progress in the case, they would still hold an anti-government rally in Bratislava on Friday.

Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Toby Chopra and Hugh Lawson

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