International lawyer Professor Alan Dershowitz has said that a Lithuanian Law authorizing the development of a conference center on a Jewish cemetery is unconstitutional. The respective resolution was passed in 2015, by the Seimas Parliament, authorizing the development of a conference center on a 500-year old Jewish cemetery. This holy site is also the ground on which over 50,000 graves rest.
Professor Dershowitz said, “The 2015 Seimas resolution green-lighting the conference center on the Shnipishok cemetery in Vilna, Lithuania, undermines the provisions of the Lithuanian Constitution, Articles 22 and 26. These respective provisions in the Constitution protect religious freedom and religious institutions. Beyond raising a compelling constitutional issue, this resolution is wrong as a matter of justice, historical preservation, basic decency and the dignity of the dead.“
Other constitutional lawyers have expressed similar reservations that the 2015 Seimas Resolution fails the litmus test and cannot be legally enforced.
Legal opinion is that the 2015 Seimas resolution also violates the European Rights Convention (Articles 8 & 9).
The Old Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt, in the Shnípeshok district of Vilnius was the initial resting place of the Vilna Gaon together with other famous Torah luminaries.
In April 2021 Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken proclaimed, ”President Joe Biden has committed to putting human rights back at the center of our foreign policy, and that’s a commitment I and the entire Department of State take very seriously.”
Accordingly, Lithuania may well be the testing ground for President Biden’s new found foreign policy. To date the U.S. government has played a role as a monitor. However, if there is any validity to Secretary of State Blinken’s statement, things are set to change.
In 2015 the Committee for Protection of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) and the Lithuanian Jewish Community Chair, Faina Kukliansky initially played ball with state-owned bank, Turto bankas, in efforts to realize the vision of the Vilnius Congress Center (VCC) and structure a framework which would comply with Jewish law.
The 2015 Seimas Resolution evoked a powerful outcry from the international Jewish community. Leading authorities on Jewish law, including a senior rabbinical court and the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) have ruled that the conference center development is a violation of Jewish law. Subsequent to the decisions of these leading Jewish authorities, both the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the CPJCE have signaled that they will not participate in the VCC project.
Located on less than one-quarter of the cemetery ground, lies the Sports Palace, a 1971 now deserted and derelict gymnasium from the Soviet era. It was initially built on the old cemetery in violation of international Human Rights Law.
In 2009, the Lithuanian Government and Lithuanian Jewish Community struck an agreement to protect the cemetery. The protocol divided the cemetery into zones to allow for any structural changes that may be necessary to secure the Sports Palace edifice. The external design of the Sports Palace features a unique style of Russian “brutal” architecture that many local architects believe needs to be protected.
Special Representative for Combatting Antisemitism Grant de Graf, argues that the 2009 Agreement was drafted to protect the cemetery, not to build a conference center. He believes the agreement is being manipulated to green-light the VCC project. “It was never the intention of the signatories to the 2009 Agreement to build a conference center or to use the ground for another purpose, other than as a cemetery.”
The 2009 Agreement requires supervision by the Lithuanian Jewish community and the CPJCE for any project on the Shnípeshok grounds. Special representative de Graf has stated that any effort to advance the project is illegal, as supervision by the CPJCE and the Lithuanian community for the project is lacking.”
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