Belarus Jewish leader on trial on suspected bribes

President of the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations Yuri Dorn is on trial for bribe-taking, other offenses.

Dollar bills 370 (photo credit: Steve Marcus / Reuters)
Dollar bills 370
(photo credit: Steve Marcus / Reuters)
MINSK - Yuri Dorn, president of the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations in Belarus, is on trial for alleged bribe-taking and several other offenses under Belarusian criminal law.
Dorn, a key figure in the country’s Jewish community over the last 20 years, was arrested in March. The local police launched an investigation after receiving information from members of the Jewish community that he had been renting non-residential communal property to private businesses for storage purposes and acting as if the public property were his own.
According to the members of the community who turned to the police, Dorn, the official responsible for management, organizational and administrative functions, signed the lease agreements for the property without consulting the board of the community, as he was supposed to do.
The police told the court that they had enlisted the help of a Belarusian-born Israeli businessman, who had pretended to negotiate the rental of a nonresidential, community-owned property and, to close the deal, had offered Dorn a $13,000 bribe, which he allegedly accepted.
A special investigative committee completed its work three months ago and decided to bring charges against Dorn.
The court of the central district of Minsk held its first hearing earlier this month. It took the prosecutor more than two hours to read all the allegations against Dorn, who is accused of violating seven articles of the criminal law in Belarus, including accepting bribes, forging documents, avoiding taxes, destroying documents, abusing power, and causing damage on a large scale.
The judge announced that he would order witnesses to appear at the trial and told the suspect that “if convicted, you will have to bear the expense of bringing the witnesses to court.”
The prosecutor also accused the Jewish community leader of illegally disassembling and damaging, along with local residents, the historical home of the Hafetz Haim – one of the most important and influential rabbis of the pre-Holocaust period. The dismantled house was transported to Lithuania before being shipped to the United States.
“The defendant had been signing all the lease agreements for the community-owned properties over the last seven years,” said the prosecutor.
However, other members of the Jewish community in Belarus dismissed the allegations against Dorn, describing them as “Soviet- era setup methods” and claiming that none of the accusations were even remotely plausible.
“Yuri Dorn is a good and honest person, and the charges against him smack of classic Soviet-era setup methods,” said a source close to him. “The Jewish community doesn’t own almost any real estate, and even the main building of the community, where the synagogue is located, belongs to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. All real estate used by the community is rented.”
The source said it was true that “some of the real estate used by the Jewish community in Minsk is rented out to private businesses, in order to fund the community’s activities. Belarus taxes all foreign currency transactions at 50 percent or more, so it makes more sense to secure finance through local income in Belarusian roubles than to rely on foreign donations.”
Still, the source continued, “a $13,000 bribe just to push through a rental contract for a couple of dozen square meters of storage space? That’s something one might pay to secure a $1 million contract. Who would pay that much in a city where you can buy an apartment in the city’s business center for $30,000?”
The source stressed that nonetheless, “Dorn, as the community’s administrator, had the legal right to manage these.There was nothing illegal in renting them out.”