BELGRADE - The four ringleaders of Serbian football fans convicted of killing a supporter of French club Toulouse ahead of a Europa League match in September 2009 were each sentenced to up to 35 years in prison on Tuesday.
The landmark verdict handed a total of 240 years to 14 Partizan Belgrade fans for beating up Brice Taton, who died in hospital 12 days after he was clubbed with bats, iron bars and flares before being thrown off a wall.
Two of them, Djordje Prelic and Dejan Puzigaca, are still on the run but were sentenced to 35 and 32 years respectively after being tried in absentia by the Belgrade Senior Court.
Ivan Grkovic and Ljubomir Markovic got 30 years each, four other fans were sentenced to 14 years each and another four got 12 years each.
Slobodan Ruzic, the lawyer of Taton's parents who attended the nine-month long trial and the sentencing, said they were satisfied with the verdict.
"The parents maintain that the punishment fits the crime and we hope that any appeal will be rejected by the court," Ruzic told reporters.
"It should never have come to this and the Serbian authorities are also responsible for not cracking down on soccer violence sooner," he added.
Friends and relatives of the accused left the courtroom sobbing and police were deployed in large numbers after dozens of Partizan fans gathered in front of the building.
Serbian football has been tarnished by violence in the last 20 years coinciding with political strife in the former Yugoslavia, which resulted in the communist country's bloody break-up.
While several Serbs have been killed and hundreds seriously injured in fighting between rival fans, Taton was the first foreign victim of football-related violence and his death sparked a public outcry for steps to crush hooliganism.
As the government vowed to take stronger action against offenders, Serbian fans began exporting the violence and caused a riot in a Euro 2012 qualifier in Italy last October, resulting in Serbia having to play two home games behind closed doors.
Partizan were thrown out of the Europa League's predecessor, the UEFA Cup, in 2007 after their fans rioted in neighbouring Bosnia while a Red Star fan was sentenced to 10 years in prison the following year for attacking a policeman with a flare.
Many offenders were able to get away with light punishment in the past and one of the defence attorneys in the Taton trial said the defendants were dealt with harshly to set an example.
"I can say with a clear conscience that politics has defeated justice in this case and threw it out the window and the verdict is nothing short of scandalous," Svetozar Vujacic told reporters.
"The evidence presented by the prosecution was at best circumstantial and even the judge had a problem explaining her own verdict.
"But we expected this because there was a lot of political pressure in this trial after the government vowed to crack down on football violence, hence we have some level of understanding for the judicial council," he said.comments