US/World News

Belarus court OKs luxury flats atop Jewish cemeteries

By Cnaan Liphshiz/(JTA) – A judge in Belarus approved the construction of apartments atop two former Jewish cemeteries. In a ruling on a motion seeking an injunction against planned construction on the former Jewish cemetery in the eastern city of Gomel, the judge of the Tsentralny District Court in Belarus on Monday, August 21, stated the court lacks jurisdiction to take any action, clearing the path for the planned construction. The motion was filed by Yakov Goodman, a Belarus-born American Jewish activist for the preservation of Jewish heritage sites in Belarus. Local authorities last year approved a project for the construction of two luxury apartment buildings on the grounds of a former cemetery on Sozhskaya Street. The motion also pertained to earthworks already underway in the city of Mozyr at another former Jewish cemetery, as per permits issued in 2015, according to the World Association of Belarusian Jews, which Goodman heads. Both projects mean that bones of Jews buried in those two cemeteries “will end up in city dumpsters,” Goodman told JTA earlier this week.

Last year, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makai and Lesley Weiss, chair of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, signed a joint declaration at the World Jewish Congress headquarters stating that the government would take steps to preserve “properties that represent the cultural heritage of all national, religious, or ethnic groups that reside or resided in its territory.” But the signing only encouraged authorities “to further attacks on Jewish heritage sites,” Goodman said.

Before the signing of the document, Goodman’s association accused Belarusian authorities under the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, of destroying three synagogues – one in Luban and two others in the capital, Minsk – and at least two Jewish cemeteries in addition to Gomel and Mozyr. Local activists are “afraid, understandably” to put up a fight in local courts, said Goodman, who was briefly arrested in 2004 in Belarus for his activism. “Under Lukashenko, Jewish heritage suffered irreparable losses,” said Goodman, who added he may appeal the ruling.

The city’s urban housing and communal services department told the court that: “There is no information about the location of the cemetery in this place.” But this assertion was disputed by several historians, including Evgeny Malikov, who wrote earlier this year in a report that the planned construction is “strictly prohibited” also by Belarusian laws. Both he and Goodman accused authorities of discriminating against Jewish buildings while showing more sensitivity to Christian ones.

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