VILNIUS, May 11, – The District Court of Vilnius City on Monday dismissed a preventive claim filed by several dozens of persons of Jewish origin and found no grounds to satisfy their claims and stop the reconstruction of Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports, an evacuated building that was built during the Soviet era on the site of an old Jewish cemetery. The development project is being managed by Turto Bankas. The court did not rule on the legality of the project. The decision was limited to the claim by the plaintiffs (160 descendants of local Lithuanians who are buried in the Shnipishok (Šnipiškės) Jewish cemetery).
The ruling was not unexpected as human rights organizations had already expressed doubt about whether a fair decision could be rendered within the Lithuanian court system.
The ruling declared: “It is to be stated that the court has failed to identify the conditions for satisfying a preventive claim in this case: the plaintiffs have not proved either their right of claim, or the actuality of potential damage, or circumstances that the defendant
conducts unlawful actions (does not comply with its legal obligation) that could cause damage.”
According to the claim, the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports was built in the territory of an old Jewish cemetery that had been there since the 16th century. It was closed in the 19th century and the majority of the tombstones were destroyed during the construction of the palace during the Soviet period, more than a century later. A recent radar survey showed that there are still thousands of graves in existence in the cemetery, on the property where the Turto bankas proposed conference center is targeted.
The 160-strong group of plaintiffs also pointed out that many of their ancestors and relatives had been interned in the cemetery and their remains are buried both under the building and its surrounding territory.
According to the European Foundation of Human Rights (EFHR), a public body representing Yosef Pines et al, the planned earth moving works will affect the skeletal remains which remain there.
Union of International Rabbinical Authorities representative Rabbi Baron has stated that in any event, according to Jewish law, the total area of the cemetery including the Sports Palace cannot be used for any purpose other than as a cemetery.
Meanwhile, Turto bankas, a state property management enterprise and the defendant, urged the court to dismiss the claim arguing that the terms of reconstruction had been agreed inter alia with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE). It pointed out that “this agreement between the parties will undoubtedly ensure the commemoration and preservation of the cemetery as a historical and sacred site as well as adequate use of the reconstructed building ...”.
The Union International Rabbinical Authorities have reminded Lithuanian authorities that the CPJCE has been banned from representing any Jewish communities and that portraying the London group as a legitimate entity that can represent a community is deceptive and wrong.
Turto bankas argued in its filing that the plaintiffs had not specified any legislative acts that were infringed and used abstract statements and assumptions instead.
The Finance Ministry, the City Council of Vilnius and chairperson of the Lithuanian Committee also disagreed with the claim’s allegations.
Rabbi Elchonon Baron who represents Union International Rabbinical Authorities has pointed out that both the Shnipishok cemetery and the Sports Palace are registered landmarks. According to Lithuanian law, the conference center development is prohibited, if it violates cultural considerations or Jewish law. “The proposed conference center development are de facto violations of Jewish law and therefore illegal,’ said Rabbi Baron.
The court pointed out inter alia that the case lacked hard data that the individuals buried within the territory of the former cemetery had any family links with the plaintiffs. According to the court, the concerns of persons of Jewish nationality over the proper preservation of a Jewish cemetery were understandable but insufficient as grounds to demand that the preventive claim be satisfied.
The court also stated that, even though it could be said that the building of the Sports Palace had been partly built on the territory of the former cemetery, there were no grounds to conclude that there were human remains still left buried under the Sports Palace as this had not been corroborated by any hard data. The court did not address the fact that “according to Jewish law the property cannot be used for any purpose other than as a cemetery.”
The court’s ruling can be appealed with the Vilnius Regional Court within 30 days. The plaintiffs have indicated that they would be appealing the decision. A slew of legal filings from human rights groups and Jewish organizations is expected.
Some Lithuanian news sources suggested that that reconstruction of the Sports Palace’s complex is scheduled to begin next year. Other said that a tender for a contractor was expected to be announced in mid-2021. Due to the fact that the Lithuanian government has frozen all cost allocations to the project, this is highly unlikely.