A long-awaited trial of Slovak businessman Marian Kocner, suspected of ordering the 2018 assassination of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, will go ahead next month, a court ruled Thursday, rejecting the defence's call for a postponement.
Relatives of the victims -- Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova -- were present for the pre-trial hearing, coming face-to-face with the millionaire property developer for the first time.
Kocner, 56, wore a bulletproof vest and a helmet as he arrived at the Special Criminal Court, watched by riot police.
Three of his four co-defendants, Alena Zsuzsova, Tomas Szabo and Miroslav Marcek, also appeared in the court in Pezinok, a town some 20 kilometres (12 miles) outside the capital Bratislava.
Zoltan A., who allegedly acted as an intermediary, has made a plea bargain pending court approval and was not present. He may be tried separately.
Journalist Kuciak had been investigating Kocner's business activities when he and Kusnirova were gunned down at home near Bratislava in a gangland-style hit in February 2018.
The double homicide triggered mass anti-government protests that forced then-premier Robert Fico to resign and paved the way for the election of liberal anti-corruption activist Zuzana Caputova as president in March.
Prosecutors have charged Kocner with ordering Kuciak's killing.
Kocner's lawyer, Marek Para, claimed he had not received the complete file to prepare the defence case and asked that the trial be postponed.
But the Slovak court concluded that "the accused and other parties in the case have been informed correctly and in enough time to read the results of the inquiry carefully," judge Ruzena Sabova said, ordering the trial to begin on January 13, 2020.
- 'No emotion on their faces' -
"I didn't see any emotion on their faces," Kusnirova's mother told reporters afterward of the accused. "They didn't want me to look into their eyes. When they did look at me, their expression was blank."
According to the 93-page indictment, which was leaked to local media, Kocner failed to find "any dirt" on the journalist to discredit him, which led the accused "to decide to get rid of Jan Kuciak physically and thus prevent further disclosure of his (Kocner's) activities".
If convicted, Kocner faces a minimum of 25 years in jail but could be imprisoned for life, Jana Tokolyova, a spokeswoman for the special prosecutor's office, told AFP earlier.
Kocner, who is also under investigation for his role in several cases of suspected fraud, has a reputation for hostility towards journalists.
In 2017, he told a news conference that he planned to create a website to publish details on journalists' private lives, according to the SME daily.
He threatened Kuciak and his family during a recorded telephone conversation, the audio of which was released by the journalist's online employer, aktuality.sk.
Investigators have revealed that Kocner exchanged thousands of messages with senior government officials from the ruling Smer-SD party.
Former prime minister and Smer chairman Robert Fico blamed the opposition and the media for linking his party to Kocner, telling reporters that their coverage against the party was "turning into a kind of jihad".
Fico remains the party leader and is widely seen as still pulling the strings.
Bratislava-based analyst Pavol Babos told AFP that "Robert Fico is definitely losing coalition potential" in the lead-up to a February general election.
"I cannot imagine political parties entering into a coalition with Smer-SD," Babos said.
Support for Smer-SD has dropped to a historic low of around 20 percent, but it is still poised to win the poll.
Kocner, 56, was wearing a bulletproof vest and a helmet as he arrived at the Special Criminal Court, where riot police and dogs were on hand
The double murder of Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova plunged the country into crisis and sparked mass demonstrations