The 2008 fire at the US embassy building in Belgrade will continue to burden the two countries' bilateral relations after the Belgrade Higher Court issued brief suspended sentences for four suspects and acquitted three others accused of being involved in the incident on November 14.
The main obstacle to successful cooperation between Serbia and the US is Washington’s support for Kosovo’s independence — the reason for the arson attack on the embassy.
On February 21, 2008, several hundred protesters attacked the US embassy in response to the West's support for Kosovo's declaration of independence. After a massive rally in the country’s capital, Serbian nationalists threw rocks, torches and other objects at the embassy, causing a fire to break out in the building. The nearby embassies of Croatia, Germany and Turkey were also attacked.
Three of the seven defendants — Dejan Vuckovic, Dragan Marinkov and Marko Novitovic — have been given six month suspended sentences, while Milan Tomas received five months.
They were found guilty of throwing stones at the US embassy, along with several unknown persons, smashing windows on the building, and then throwing a torch inside, which led to the fire, the court said. They will pay the costs of the court proceedings, while court fees for those acquitted will be paid from the budget.
The remaining three defendants — Djordje Tomin, Nikola Kosanovic and Filip Backovic — were acquitted because of lack of evidence.
This is the second-instance verdict, since the first verdict was abolished last autumn by the Appellate Court, which ordered a retrial. Both the prosecution and the defence have the right to appeal against this ruling to the Appellate Court, which will then make a final decision. The initial verdict also sentenced the defendants to between six and ten months in prison, while the Court of Appeals upheld sentences for violent behaviour handed down to several indictees, B92 reported.
As for the police responsibility for security failures during and after the "Kosovo is Serbia" rally is concerned, the Higher Public Prosecutor's Office in Belgrade in May this year raised indictments against five police officers charged with grave acts against general safety and abuse of office. The indictment was forwarded to the court on May 8 and has not yet been confirmed.
The US embassy in Belgrade issued a highly critical statement after the ruling was announced. “It is hard to believe that nine years were needed to come to a judgment in a case involving a property damage of almost half a million dollars and a death of one person, and that the final result is that none of the seven accused, four of them in the presence legal representatives admitted that had participated in a serious offence, was not sentenced to prison,” the embassy said.
Even though both sides say they are committed to improvement of bilateral relations, tensions between Belgrade and Washington are frequently discussed in Serbia. There is also speculation in Serbia that Russian so called ‘soft influence’ may be behind the court’s latest decision.
Besides the open antagonism between US Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott and Serbia’s Minister of Defence Aleksandar Vulin, tensions have been escalating since a speech made by US deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee, on October 24. Yes said that: “It is not possible to sit on two chairs at the same time.”, using an old Serbian proverb to imply he did not believe Serbia could continue to balance improving ties with Russia with striving towards EU membership.
The latest court decision may also cause problems in Serbia’s relations with Germany, even though Berlin is Serbia’s main supporter on its EU path as well as main economic partner and investor. Germany’s Bundestag adopted a resolution on June 27, 2013 which specifies that Serbian accession negotiations can only be concluded once the arson attack on the German embassy in February 2008 is fully investigated.
Similar obstacles may come from Croatia, which became EU member several years after the attack.