Bosnian Jews up in arms about new restitution law

The law gives the Muslim community veto power over apartment sales.

Street in Bosnia 88 (photo credit: )
Street in Bosnia 88
(photo credit: )
Jewish groups are troubled by a new property restitution law in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina that officially discriminates in favor of the country's Muslims. A law passed earlier this month allows people living in state-owned apartments that were nationalized under the former Yugoslavia's socialist regime to purchase the dwellings. But the law - backed by lawmakers from the country's Muslim majority - provides that any apartment previously owned by the Muslim community cannot be purchased if the community objects to the sale. "Holders of tenant's tenure for apartments whose formal owners are wakfs can not buy up those apartments without previous written approval of the apartment's owner," the law states, using the Arabic word for a Muslim community endowment. The Jewish community, as well as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, was not given the same veto power. A protest letter to the government and various international authorities from The Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina states, "One of the fundamental principles of justice, equity and of the democracy in which we would like to believe is equality before the law. Unfortunately, this law definitely violates this principle." A group of ethnic Croatian lawmakers has challenged the law in the Constitutional Court, which should rule on it shortly, according to Bosnia-based diplomats. The law has generated concern over the future of private-property return in Bosnia and Herzegovina at a time when the government is still formulating its approach to restitution. The law would mean that Holocaust survivors or their heirs wouldn't obtain fair compensation for their former property, according to Jakub Finci, chairman of the country's small Jewish community. "I think it's another injustice done not only to Jews but all other former owners who waited 50 years to get back their property," Finci said. The Inter-Religious Council, which includes Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox representatives, says the legislation would leave people whose apartments were nationalized with little possibility of regaining their property. Council members object to any legislation that prevents the return of private property to its pre-World War II owners, and point out that the law contravenes the rules of the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Universal Human Rights and other European norms that Bosnia and Herzegovina has agreed to uphold. A human rights experts at a Western embassy who would speak only on background said he expected the constitutional court to strike down the legislation, "as it is so blatantly discriminatory." With parliamentary elections looming in October, legislators who backed the apartment law were seeking to gain votes from the vast number of people who still live in state-owned apartments, Finci said. The law does offer some compensation to those who lose their property - in the form of property in another location - but there's no requirement that the alternate property have the same value. "So someone can take up a property in Sarajevo and the original owner could get a plot in the forest somewhere," Finci said. Restitution has been a thorny issue across the former Eastern bloc, with compensation often serving as a substitute for restitution. Finci estimated that about 2,000 apartments in the city belonged to Jewish families when they were nationalized by the socialist government of Marshal Josip Broz Tito. The law also means that the Jewish community will lose 71 Sarajevo apartments that it owned communally before World War II. There were 12,000 Jews living in Sarajevo before World War II. Before the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, there were 1,800. Today there are about 1,000, including 700 in Sarajevo, where property prices have soared as a massive rebuilding plan has helped restore the city's grandeur. Some Croatian politicians who say their Bosnian Muslim counterparts have been pushing an Islamic agenda cite the apartment legislation as an example. Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said how the property restitution issue is handled would reflect on Bosnia's overall human-rights record. "This legislation, if implemented, would pre-empt the possibility of any actual return of former Jewish property in Bosnia," he said. "We are saddened by a proposal that would treat the Jewish community and other religious groups less favorably than the Muslim community."