A panel of judges in Slovakia on Thursday acquitted a businessman accused of masterminding the slayings of an investigative journalist and his fiancee.
Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová were gunned down at their home two years ago in murders that rocked the country.
The killings prompted major street protests unseen since the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia with the ensuing political crisis leading to the collapse of a coalition government headed by populist Robert Fico and to the dismissal of the national police chief.
Kuciak had been writing about the business dealings of Marián Kočner as well as the alleged ties between the Italian mafia and people close to the then-prime minister Fico when he was killed.
Judge Ružena Sabová announced the verdict in Pezinok on Thursday, citing a lack of evidence to convict.
The judges cleared businessman Kočner, and one co-defendant, Alena Zsuzsová, of involvement in the killings.
A third defendant, Tomáš Szabó, who was accused of being at the murder scene and driving the getaway vehicle, was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role.
The prosecution may still appeal.
Speaking in front of the courthouse, Kušnírová's mother Zlatica Kušnírová told the media of her disbelief at the verdict.
"We hoped they would not be released," she said. "I do not understand the court's decision, but it's bad. It seems that justice has not yet begun to reign in Slovakia."
She added that she and her family would continue to fight the decision in the country's Supreme Court.
Jozef Kuciak, the father of the murdered journalist, said he hoped the court would take into account new evidence submitted by the prosecution.
"All that was left was to trust that the truth would eventually prevail,” he said.
The state prosecution had requested 25-year prison terms for all three defendants.
Kočner, a businessman who has already been sentenced to 19 years in prison in a separate case, was accused of ordering the killings and the other two defendants of being accomplices.
They all pleaded not guilty to murdering Kuciak and Kušnírová.
Two others have already been sentenced for their roles in the assassinations, including former soldier Miroslav Marček who pled guilty to committing the murders. He was sentenced to 23 years in January 2020.
Kočner was found guilty in February 2020 in a fraud case of forging €69 million worth of promissory notes and sentenced to 19 years in prison. He is appealing against the sentence.
Reacting to the verdict, Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders, tweeted: "@RSF_inter is shocked by the verdict in the case of #JanKuciak’s murder as the people accused of being mastermind & intermediary are acquitted. An acquittal is an evidence [sic] of a huge failure of the investigation bodies and the judiciary."
He added: "We expected #Slovakia to set a positive example regarding the prosecution and condemnation of crimes against journalists. Instead, we remain in a situation of impunity. Who ordered the killing of #jankuciak? Why was he killed? We should have a clear answer."
Slovakian president Zuzana Čaputová said the verdict "shocked her" in a Facebook post on Thursday. She added: "I respect it, but I expect that justice-seeking is not done and will continue in the Supreme Court.
"Thinking of the parents of Ján and Martina and wish them a lot of strength in this difficult moment. They and we all deserve to see also being held accountable to those who ordered and mediated the murder of their children."
Mark Dekan, the CEO of Ringier Axel Springer Media, the owner of the news site Kuciak wrote for, said: "My thoughts are with the families of Ján and Martina. I can only imagine what it must mean to them that the murder of Ján and his fiancee Martina has not yet been fully solved.
"It would be unbearable for all of us if the perpetrators of the crime did not receive their just sentence.”
Anti-corruption NGO Transparency International said in a statement on Facebook: "Today's liberating verdict for Marián Kočner and Alena Zsuzsová is undoubtedly a shock to a large part of the public.
"For the Supreme Court and law enforcement agencies, it must now be a top priority so that this case does not become the last nail in the coffin of public confidence in justice and justice in Slovakia!"
Observing the verdict from further afield, Czech MEP Tomáš Zdechovský commented on Twitter: "I can't believe this isn't fiction at all. The mafia that dominated Slovak politics seemed to be slowly but surely getting away. Today's judgment in the case of #Kočner however, showed that unfortunately he still has long fingers."