In Italy, prosecutors suggested that the notorious Calabrian crime syndicate the ‘Ndrangheta may have been behind the killing of Kuciak, 27, and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova who were found shot dead at their home on Sunday.
Slovak police commander Tibor Gaspar told reporters that the individuals taken into custody during raids in the eastern town of Michalovice were “persons mentioned” by Kuciak in connection with the “Italian track”.
Slovak media reported that among those held was businessman Antonino Vadala — the owner of several companies — and several of his relatives, alleged by Kuciak to have links to Italy’s notorious ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate and contacts in the Slovak government.
“Physical evidence (is being gathered) and individuals are being detained, they will be interrogated,” Gaspar said.
The prosecutor in the Italian region of Calabria, Nicola Gratteri, told Italian radio meanwhile that “it is likely that the families of the Calabrian mafia are behind the murder” of Kuciak. “It is obvious that ‘Ndrangheta is capable of this.”
The murder has raised concerns about media freedom and corruption in Slovakia and sparked international condemnation.
– Candlelit protest –
An article by Kuciak posthumously published Wednesday by aktuality.sk focused on fraud cases allegedly involving Vadala and said he was linked to leftist Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s entourage.
Maria Troskova, a close Fico aide, was forced out after Kuciak alleged she had ties to Vadala, purportedly involved with ‘Ndrangheta.
A candlelit protest in the capital Bratislava called by an opposition party drew around 1,000 people Wednesday night. Other anti-corruption protests are planned for Friday across Slovakia and in Prague, London and The Hague.
Fico accused the opposition Wednesday of using the murder as a “political tool to get people out on the streets and gain power”.
Thousands of mostly young Slovaks joined anti-graft rallies last year demanding the dismissal of senior government and police officials for alleged foot-dragging on fighting graft.
Transparency International ranks Slovakia as the seventh most corrupt EU member.
– ‘Mafia in Slovakia’? –
Kuciak’s last, unfinished investigative report raised possible political links to Italian businessmen with alleged ties to Calabria’s notorious mafia supposedly operating in eastern Slovakia.
“Italians with ties to the mafia have found a second home in Slovakia. They started doing business, receiving subsidies, drawing EU funds, but especially building relationships with influential people in politics — even in the government office of the Slovak Republic,” Kuciak wrote.
Troskova, 30, and Fico’s crisis management officer Viliam Jasan, who had past dealings with Vadala, said Wednesday they had given up their posts for the duration of the murder investigation, but denied any wrongdoing.
“We categorically reject any connection with this tragedy,” they said in a statement.
Slovakia’s leading SME broadsheet had first revealed details of Kuciak’s investigation on Tuesday.
The report triggered an angry rebuke from Fico, who showed reporters stacks of euro bills totalling the one-million-euro ($1.2-million) reward he has offered for information that could lead to the killers.
– ‘End of an era’ –
The Kuciak shooting followed the October car bomb murder of campaigning Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia — who exposed crime and corruption on the Mediterranean island.
Marek Vagovic, the head of the team of investigative journalists at aktuality.sk, told AFP that Kuciak’s murder was “the end of an era” in Slovakia.
“This murder will change the atmosphere in Slovakia in a way that there will be much harder pressure on the investigation of serious crimes, on revealing corruption and clientelism, on revealing interconnection of politics and business.”
Journalists investigating the same story as Kuciak said they have obtained police protection.
Adam Valcek, who works for SME, told his publication that thanks to police he was able “to sleep peacefully that night”, without going into detail.
Pavla Holcova, a Czech journalist and founder of the Czech Centre for Investigative Journalism, who had worked closely with Kuciak, told local media she had been assigned police bodyguards, but declined further comment.
Fico, who once told journalists they were “dirty,anti-Slovak prostitutes”, has vowed his government is committed to the “protection of freedom of speech and the safety of journalists”.