CULTURAL ICON: Concerned citizens that wanted the government to save the theater, a cultural icon and powerful symbol during Soviet times, now face legal action from the company that bought the plot of land and hopes to build an apartment complex.
VILNIUS - Four activists defending Lietuva Cinema (LC) have been slapped with a collective one million lita (290,000 euro) lawsuit for damages because their complaints to the local government about town planning have allegedly cost the building company money.
Rojaus Apartmentai, which plans to build luxury apartment buildings on the site of the historic cinema, said that the activists have delayed construction because of court proceedings they initiated, and are therefore responsible for the damages.
Human rights activists and the defendants in the law suits are crying foul, saying they were only stating their opinions as responsible citizens, and are being punished for it.
"As an artist and as a citizen I was expressing my opinion over this cultural space. This land and cinema is being given to private hands," Gediminas Urbonas, one of the four activists and a professor of visual art and architecture at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told The Baltic Times.
"We think they want to specifically punish active citizens. I think they want to give lessons to people who want to be active in territory planning and urban development," he added.
Urbonas said this is a violation of the Aarhus Convention, which gives people the right to question government actions and gives them the right to justice.
"Our claims weren't against the company, they were against the municipal government of Vilnius," he said.
"To simplify this complicated situation, maybe I could say it like this 's the Estonian government agrees to take nuclear waste and store it in the country, but this would endanger one million citizens of the country. So the people complain to the government and then the nuclear waste storing company sues every citizen of Estonia for getting in the way of their very clever business plan."
Urbonas said that the government has a responsibility to defend the cinema and that they were trying to aid this process.
"We made appeals and proposals in writing to the Vilnius Municipality. This is in the Vilnius Old Town and should be developed within the strict laws of UNESCO 's it is a protected area. The specifics of the building should be negotiated."
The cinema was originally public property under the control of the Vilnius Municipal government. It was sold in 2005 to the land developers for "a very small fee," and has since been in the courts with people defending LC.
LC was sold to developers while former mayor Arturas Zuokas was in power. He has been dogged by controversy over corruption during his political career, including a conviction for bribery of council members. His reputation as a corrupt politician recently forced him to step down from nomination for health minister in the new cabinet.
A court ruled previously that the developers would have to rebuild the cinema under the apartments to preserve the cultural icon, which showed independent films during Soviet times. The ruling only came after public pressure urged the courts to consider the importance of the cinema.
David vs Goliath
Two non-governmental organizations, "DEMOS Institute of Critical Thought" and "VISI Public Interest Safeguard Institute," have addressed a letter to members of European Parliament in Brussels asking for the issue to be reviewed. In the letter, they said the case is a violation of human rights.
"We ask for your immediate action in an exemplary case of a grave distortion of constitutional rights of citizens of Lithuania and hence of the EU itself. Four responsible citizens are being held hostage by private business and public institutions, court cases are being filed against them and amount of ransom required is constantly growing," the letter said.
"And this is simply because these citizens dared to express their opinion and right to participate in the process of the city planning," it said.
The activists say the company should expect to have to defend their actions and shouldn't try to scare away those who have an opinion.
"The decision to privatize the cinema theater 'Lietuva,' being based on commercial considerations only, has been passed by the Vilnius City Government one-sidedly and without any concern about public protests or clearly expressed opinions as well as in violation of both international Aarhus Convention and U.N. pact of economic, social and cultural rights to all of which Lithuania is a party," the DEMOS letter said.
Jolanta Bielskiene, a representative of DEMOS told The Baltic Times, that this is big business trying to beat down the people.
"Basic human rights are being affected. It started innocently with these people trying to save the cinema," she said.
"When they bought this land, they knew what they were getting into. They can't expect people to walk away and say 'sorry we don't want you to lose money'."
Urbonas has felt the personal effects of his mission to save LC.
"This is a huge threat. The company is trying to arrest our personal bank accounts and property so that we couldn't do anything. This gesture is a political threat saying that if anyone wants to get involved in the larger population 's if you try to be active 's then you will face consequences," he said.
Attorneys for Rojaus Apartmentai were unavailable for comment.