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Slovaks Protest After Journalist's Killing


A love story turned murder mystery is sparking mass protests across Slovakia and even led to the collapse of that government there earlier this week. But that wasn't enough for many Slovaks who took to the streets again last night, as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the capital Bratislava demanding justice and new elections. It was the third time in as many weeks they packed the square named for Slovak uprisings. There haven't been any protests this size here since the Velvet Revolution. Those demonstrations brought down communism in 1989.

The catalyst for the country's outrage began in what nowadays is the heavily guarded newsroom of Aktuality.sk. For nearly three years, Jan Kuciak worked at this online news portal as an investigative journalist covering corruption. Next to his darkened computer screen, there's a book on the Italian mafia, which a graphic on a piece of paper nearby links to powerful politicians and businessmen in Slovakia. His colleague Peter Habara says the alleged links were the subject of Kuciak's last story, an unfinished article that has since been published around the world.

PETER HABARA: Jan was a dedicated person - not only a journalist, but a dedicated son of Slovakia. We can use this term because he was trying to make this country better.

NELSON: Slovak police say that effort cost the 27-year-old and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova their lives. She was also 27 and an archaeologist who investigators believe was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their bodies were found on February 25 inside their home - he with a bullet to the chest and she with a bullet to the head. Who killed them and on what day is unclear given missteps early on in the investigation that led to the interior minister resigning. Habara said he had originally planned to meet the couple yesterday at their white bungalow in a remote village in the Slovak countryside.

HABARA: They found another house. They just wanted to spend their lives over there because they were doing a lot of reconstruction. I mean, I was always making fun of him that please just finish the living room. I don't want my children to freeze up and stuff like that - so yeah.

NELSON: Friends say the couple who met in college were crazy about each other. They planned to marry this May.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Czech).

NELSON: They had chosen this melancholy Czech song about love in war-torn Sarajevo for their wedding. The quiet and shy Kuciak also wrote a poem for his bride-to-be about his plan to live forever so he could love her forever. Their lives being so brazenly cut short and the government failing to do anything about it ignited the country, says Jan Orlovsky, who knew Kuciak and who heads Slovakia's Open Society Foundations.

JAN ORLOVSKY: It's like, you know, the little part with a lid. So the pressure builds up and then something unexpected comes out. And I think it was a major mistake of the government not to say we are very sorry. We will investigate. And these people will be removed right away because that's their public responsibility. It was just another show of arrogance. Like, we can afford anything, and you can't do anything.

NELSON: That smugness continued on Thursday after Prime Minister Robert Fico resigned along with his cabinet.


ROBERT FICO: (Speaking Czech).

NELSON: He told reporters the sacrifice was necessary to restore stability that only his governing coalition can bring. His deputy is to become the new prime minister. And Fico said he will continue behind the scenes as head of the lead governing party.



NELSON: It's an arrangement protesters say they won't tolerate. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Bratislava.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBOS' "BLACK SANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.