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While the legal staff of both the Saeima and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are trying to settle the legal dispute in the case of the restitution of Jewish property, Jewish NGOs will face each other in court on September 7.
The Latvian Jewish religious community “Šamir” has filed a claim in the Riga Central district Court against the Jewish Religious Congregation of Riga, which is a member of the Council of Jewish congregations and communities of Latvia led by banker Arkādijs Suharenko. The motivation behind the claim is that “Šamir” is no longer able to use the former synagogue on 63 Stabu street in Riga, since the building was cut off from the public water supply, electricity and heating supply. Both organizations signed an agreement on April 1998, lasting until 2023, which states that the Jewish Religious Congregation of Riga transfers the rights to use the premises in the basement of the Stabu 63 building without rental fees to “Šamir”, and that it guarantees to cover all of the maintenance costs of the premises and its share of the land tax.
But now the Jewish Religious Congregation of Riga demands almost two thousand Euros from “Šamir” for utility payments and points out that the plaintiff wants to unlawfully appropriate the rights of use of the premises. In its defence, “Šamir” has written in the court claim that the defendant acted unlawfully by disconnecting the building from the public water, heating and electric supply on September 1st, 2013, and that the alleged public utility debt has existed, but has been paid fully; that separate water, heating and electricity meters have been installed and all bills have been paid fully. The community has also pointed out that the building didn`t have a janitor for many years and the community has maintained and renovated the courtyard using their funds.
Reluctant to argue, reluctant to agree
Rabbi Menahems Barkahans said: “During the Soviet occupation the Road Architects` Bureau was headquartered in this building, so we carried out a thorough renovation of the building to offer our social and religious services in its premises. I personally donated 25 thousand dollars for this cause. As I am a rabbi, I do not wish to argue with the Jewish Religious Congregation of Riga, led by Davids Kagans, which has filed a counterclaim in court, so we offered them options on how to make an agreement and continue the use of the building, but since no response was recieved from them we had no choice but to file a lawsuit.”
The chairman of the board of the Jewish Religious Congregation of Riga, D. Kagans also acknowledged a preference for an agreement by inviting accountants from both organizations to meet and file a common report on the amount of the debt, and how much of it has been paid, but unfortunately “Šamir” does not wish to take part. He stressed that the congregations` sole income are from rental fees from the property on Stabu 63.
The counterclaim disputes the legal ties between “Šamir” and the Spiritual and professional renaissance support fund of the Soviet Israeli and CIS countries` Jews “Šamir” (further - “the fund”) which was the original participant of the beforementioned agreement. “The agreement between the fund and the Latvian Jewish religious community “Šamir”, that states that both sides agree on the inheritance of all legal rights and duties of the fund by the community, was signed in 2001,” said rabbi Barkahans, also pointing out that the upcoming legal process and the disagreement between the two Jewish organizations are a part of the issue of the restitution of Jewish property, since the Council of Jewish congregations and communities of Latvia led by Suharenko positions itself as the sole pretender on all Jewish property nationalized by the Soviet occupation regime in 1940 that hasn`t been allocated to civic or religious organizations.
Legal staff are examining the legal drafts
The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Comission of the Saeima, Ojārs Kalniņš told that the restitution case will be continued to be discussed in parliament in September while the legal staff of the Saeima and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are trying to find a solution to the legal dispute.
Councillor of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs, Mārtiņš Drēģeris: “Until now we`ve had a unformal meeting with representatives from the Legal Office of the Saeima. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was represented in this meeting by the State Secretary and specialists from the Legal Department. During the meeting we discussed the objections and propositions of the Legal Office of the Saeima. The participants of the meeting agreed to continue work on adjusting the legal drafts.” (The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has prepared and submitted legal drafts to the Saeima concerning the return of five properties and lifting the legal barrier.)
Disagreement over the “central Jewish authority” and fund
The Jewish organizations are also divided on their opinion, if the claim on the return of property is legally valid and who has the legal right to claim these properties for themselves. “These properties cannot be transferred to a single entity. There is no such term as a “central Jewish authority”. It may possibly be easier for the state apparatus but in no ways democratic. All Jews living in Latvia which are citizens of the Republic of Latvia, independently from where they came from, are members of the Jewish community. The Jewish community must receive its property confiscated during the Holocaust, not a reimbursement for it,” said rabbi Barkahans.
On the other hand, the vice-chairman of the Council of Jewish congregations and communities of Latvia, Dmitrijs Krupņikovs said that if the legal drafts are to be approved, a Jewish relief fund modelled on the State Culture Capital Fund would be established, in which the state would, in the space of ten years, deposit a certain sum as a reimbursement for the lost property. Six representatives from the Council of Jewish congregations and communities and five from foreign Jewish organizations would maintain the fund with supervision from the Ministry of Finance. On the other hand, rabbi Barkahans is against the participation of international organizations in this process, as well as the involvement of Jewish exiles from abroad.
The case of the Jewish property is further complicated by the dispute between the organization led by Suharenko and rabbi Menahems Barkahans – the conflict has been brought to court.