By Radovan Stoklasa
PEZINOK, Slovakia (Reuters) - A Slovak court on Thursday found a politically connected businessman not guilty of charges that he ordered the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, a case that shook the nation and brought down longtime premier Robert Fico.
The court convicted another defendant of taking part in the murder but found no evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the February 2018 hit was ordered by businessman Marian Kocner - a judgment that shocked the victims' families, who left the courtroom in tears, and drew criticism from political leaders.
President Zuzana Caputova, a former human rights lawyer, said she was stunned and expected appeals to the Supreme Court.
The killing of Kuciak, 27, and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova forced then-Prime Minister Fico to step down, sparked the biggest public protests since the end of Communist rule in 1989 and ushered in a new government in March this year whose main election promise was to clean up corruption and sleaze.
The couple were gunned down in their home outside Bratislava, four months after the murder in Malta of another journalist investigating corruption, Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Bringing Kuciak's killers to justice has been a test of Slovakia's judicial and political system, long regarded as susceptible to corruption.
SHOCK, TEARS OVER ACQUITTAL OF KOCNER
Prosecutors said Kocner, the subject of Kuciak's reporting on graft involving politically connected business people, had ordered the killing of the reporter. Kocner denied the charge.
The court also acquitted Kocner's acquaintance Alena Zsuzsova, who was accused of helping arrange the hit.
Stunned and reduced to tears by the Kocner verdict, relatives of the victims left the courtroom as Judge Ruzena Sabova kept reading out details of the judgment.
"I had planned to go to Martinka and Jan's grave to tell them that, finally, all who had done this to you will be punished. Unfortunately, as you see, this is impossible," a weeping Zlatica Kusnirova, the mother of Martina, told Czech Television outside the court building.
Prime Minister Igor Matovic was also critical of the verdict, saying on Facebook: "It seems that the apparent plotters of murder want to escape the claws of justice...Let's hope that justice awaits them both."
The court sentenced another defendant, Tomas Szabo, to 25 years in prison for helping carry out the murder.
Two others have already been convicted in the murders after admitting involvement, one - a former soldier who was the gunman - getting 23 years in prison, and the other 15 years.
Kocner, well known in Slovak business and political circles, has already received a 19-year prison term in a separate case for forging 69 million euros in promissory notes. He has appealed that decision but remains in custody.
The Kuciak murder investigation has forced the resignation of several senior politicians and judicial officials on account of their previous links to Kocner.
(Reporting by Radovan Stoklasa, and Jason Hovet and Robert Muller in Prague; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Mark Heinrich)