In February 2018, Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée were shot dead in their home (a case also at the centre of Matt Sarnecki’s The Killing of a Journalist). The shocking killing of the young journalist, whose work had focused on investigating corruption and fraud flourishing amidst ‘the cosy relationship’ between Slovak politics and business, shook the country, sending shockwaves through the nation.
The brutal murder of the journalist spurred public outrage and massive anti-corruption protests (in numbers comparable to those in the 1989 Velvet Revolution), plunging the country into a political crisis, which eventually led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Robert Fico and his cabinet. Among those implicated in the case was Marian Kočner, a notorious businessman and now a convicted criminal (Kočner was sentenced to 19 years in prison on a separate case, which involved the forging of promissory notes worth some €69 million).
In the case of Kuciak’s murder, Kočner was suspected of masterminding the crime and ordering the hit. In 2020, to much surprise, a Slovak court acquitted Kočner, only ordering him to pay a fine of €5,000 for the illegal possession of weapons discovered at his house amid the probe into the crime. A year later, in ‘a second chance for justice to prevail’, the country’s Supreme Court overturned Kočner’s acquittal, ordering a retrial by the Specialised Criminal Court. The shocking murder that gripped Slovakia in 2018 was far from the sole criminal case that featured Kočner’s name. His phone, seized by the police, unveiled the businessman’s involvement in a hefty corruption scheme with the nation’s judiciary. Kočner’s numerous messages exchanged with the country’s «venerable» judges on the end-to-end encrypted app Threema revealed attempts to influence court rulings. The trove of data, extracted from the tycoon’s phone, sadly confirmed the «worst fears» that justice in Slovakia was «for sale.»
Zuzana Piussi’s documentary, dubbed succinctly The Ordeal, spotlights the many failings of the Slovak justice system, which surfaced in the Threema scandal, and the ordeal of having to live through it as a citizen. In an unprecedented turn of events, what started with the leaked messages from Kočner’s phone resulted in a spree of arrests of judges and other top-echelon figures. In the ensuing Operation Storm, some 13 judges and five other high-level figures were detained on charges of corruption, obstruction of justice and interference with the independence of courts. After Storm came Operation Gale, which led to the capture of some more big fish, much to public praise. The events that steamrolled Slovakia rattled the public’s trust in the judiciary, foregrounding its legitimacy crisis and a dire need for its reform. Ultimately, the Threema scandal set the so-called purification of the judiciary in motion. «The greatest event in the purification of Slovakia was the seizure of Marian Kočner’s phone», a judge remarked in the film. «If it weren’t for that, nothing would’ve changed; this public debate would never have started.»
When zealous anti-graft fighter Igor Matovič was elected as Prime Minister in 2020, many Slovaks were hopeful. Matovič secured the win, tapping into the public disillusionment with the country’s political system that had been undermined in the years of the Direction-Social Democracy party (SMER) by unscrupulous corruption practices and ties to questionable businessmen. Among the hopeful ones were the former employees of the Ružomberok paper mill (Mondi SCP), who had for years demanded that Milan Fiľo keep his end of the 1996 privatisation deal, which promised them an entitlement of some 15 percent of the shares. Some of the paper mill’s former employees had been suing Fiľo for these shares for years, to no avail. More than 3,000 (former) employees, we are told, received a «threatening letter» warning them against smearing the company’s name. The letter was sent even to those who happened to be long dead (a widow of a former paper mill employee recalls receiving the letter sent to her husband some 12 years after his death).
The events that steamrolled Slovakia rattled the public’s trust in the judiciary, foregrounding its legitimacy crisis and a dire need for its reform.
Detailing the events of the case of Eco-Invest versus former employees, the documentary harks back to unfulfilled vows, and not only Fiľo’s. During the elections of 2020, Matovič publicly spoke about the disputed case, denouncing Fiľo, whom he called «the local Ružomberok god» who enjoyed (former PM) Fico’s protection. However, once in office, the fulfilment of Matovič’s promises in regard to the case was yet to see the light of day. Sadly, some did not get to see this moment. In one of Matovič’s (rather amicable) encounters with some of the paper mill ex-employees outside the government building, a former long-time crane operator at the Ružomberok paper mill, Janka Javorková, takes out a small placard from her handbag, featuring a fellow colleague who had passed away. It read, «Mr. Matovič, what did you promise me? I didn’t live to see it.» As years passed, Javorková wound up as the only former employee who had not withdrawn her suit against Fiľo. In return, the wealthy businessman, whose «paper-making empire» in Ružomberok was «now worth hundreds of millions of euros», sued the pensioner for the sum of 300,000 euros. In the film’s final moments, we learn that Fiľo eventually abandoned the suit against Javorková after keeping her on her toes for six long years (which was an ordeal in itself with a string of court adjournments).
Many of those who appear in The Ordeal agree in unison that the Threema scandal jolted judiciary changes into action, which though well-intentioned, have so far suffered some setbacks. The government changed, along with the power balance in the Judiciary Council. But does a reform stand a chance when practices remain? The initial elation shared by Judicial Council member Pavol Žilinčík quickly subsided when he realised that those in «the other camp», who were to act in the interest of improving the situation in the judiciary, would not hesitate to use «the same methods.» Another Judicial Council member, Katarína Javorčíková, expressed concerns about the chaos, saying that «maybe it’s even worse than before because, at least, we used to know who was who. Now, you know nothing.» Supreme Court judge and Judicial Council member Elena Berthotyová wished to be part of the change. However, she said it was «the greatest disappointment» to see that the politicians could decide to bring about the judiciary reform without the reformist judges. «They decided to do it in a rush, their own way and with a stopwatch in their hand. No reform stands a chance to succeed that way», she added.
The documentary does not delve into the nuts and bolts of the judiciary reform launched by then Minister of Justice Mária Kolíková (who, during her tenure, planned to introduce a number of measures aimed at combating corruption in the judiciary and strengthening the rule of law), but it does mention some of the regrettable developments that evinced the ways the changes have gone astray. As the film draws to a close, we learn of the arrests of the key investigators in the probe that saw the judges from the Fico era investigated and detained. Next, we hear chants that grow louder, with scores of protesters holding banners and shouting with anguish, «We don’t want corrupt judges. We don’t want courts that can be bribed!» In a 2019 article published after the Threema scandal by Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for Legal Theory at Leuven University, Michal Ovádek made an intriguing argument, which may as well be worth bringing up today. Pondering ‘the rot’ in the Slovak judiciary, he weighed in on whether there had been much to be backsliding from, for Slovakia with respect to the rule of law. Notorious figures like Kočner, he wrote, had been around (and successfully evaded legal consequences) in Slovakia for over 20 years.