Suspected assailants of Slovenian journalist and MP acquitted of all charges

This week, the long-running trial of well known Slovenian journalist Miro Petek came to an end. Petek was attacked and beaten up almost four years ago, presumably for his investigative journalism. The subsequent trial did not result in any convictions and has implications for journalists and freedom of expression in Slovenia.

More than four years after the former newspaper journalist and current parliamentarian Miro Petek was brutally attacked, the trial came to an end on Monday. All five defendants were acquitted because of lack of evidence - the court could only confirm that he was indeed attacked but could not discover who gave the order for the attack, who executed the assault and why exactly he almost lost his life. Petek was very disappointed about the verdict:

"I am very disappointed with the decision of the court and the verdict in Murska Sobota but, in a way, I awaited a verdict like this. After four and a half years the case is still not solved and there is also no indication that we will soon reach the final point - the discovery of the persons behind the attack and their punishment."

It all started on a cold February evening four years ago when Miro Petek, at the time a journalist for the second biggest Slovenian newspaper, Vecer, was brutally beaten up and almost killed in front of his house in the small town of Mezica in the northern region of Carinthia. With two broken cheekbones, a smashed nose and numerous other head injuries, his condition was very severe and life threatening.

The doctor who treated him said she was "particularly afraid of possible inner head bleeding because his head injuries were severe. After his recovery, he had to undergo a lot of operations due to broken cheek bones and nose."

The first attack on a member of the press in Slovenian history took the country by surprise. Everyone, especially members of the media, were asking themselves: is it possible that one of the most important rights - the right to speak - is in danger? Immediately after the incident intensive investigations began and questions rose as to why Petek was attacked. He was an award-winning journalist and was well known for his provocative and investigative journalism. Not long before the so-called "cruel Wednesday" he was working on a story about money laundering and possible criminal activities in Slovenian Carinthia. After publishing some reports on this subject, two men waited for him behind his garage and struck without saying a word. They left him lying on the ground -- knowing that the temperature was far below freezing. Luckily he had some strength left to reach the house door where his wife found him.

In the months and years to come, the police were heavily criticised - they had no clues, their work was accompanied by mistakes - even worse, they failed to protect the crime scene. It got to the point where even a special government workshop had to be convened. Miro Petek:

"During this time, the police and prosecution failed. The first mistakes, the biggest and probably the most important and decisive mistakes, were made at the actual beginning, after the attack, and these were very hard to correct. Although the special government team made a lot of effort to ensure that the matter was not forgotten, they could not reverse the case."

It was only on the 16th of September 2003, 929 days after the attack, that six men were detained. Four were charged with attempted murder, one for assisting in attempted murder and one was released. But the initial euphoria did not last long. Miro Petek thinks that the court reached its decision months before the trial ended:

"The court only accepted evidence that fitted into their concept of the verdict, for which the decision was taken months before. This kind of trial is a very deep blow for the rule of law in Slovenia."

In the next 16 months, an unprecedented and almost grotesque case followed and the key word was fear. The prosecution's case was based on anonymous witnesses because they were too afraid to testify, the prosecutors request for another expert witness was first allowed, but then the court withdrew its own decision without any explanation whatsoever. The DA of the city Maribor was under police protection; what is more, the judge that was leading the case even admitted that he was afraid. All that the defence had to do was to say: "There is not enough evidence for a conviction beyond any doubt" and in the end they were right and succeeded.

But such a verdict, according to Petek, was a disaster for Slovenian journalism:

"I think that after all of this the freedom and security of journalism is endangered. The day has been clearly a dark day for Slovenian journalism. A clear sign has been sent from Murska Sobota - it is possible to beat up a journalist without punishment, maybe even liquidate them."

Although the possibility of catching his attackers does not look promising, he remains optimistic:

"In spite of the disappointment, I always stay optimistic because justice has to win one day."