Friday 1 April 2011
CHICAGO — A US federal appeals court has sided with Iran in a long-running legal battle over whether Persian artifacts in Chicago museums can be seized as compensation for victims of a terror attack in Israel. Tuesday’s ruling overturns a lower court’s rejection of Iran’s sovereign immunity and order that Iran must provide the victims with a list of all its US assets.
Judge Diane Sykes wrote in the 41 page ruling:
Both orders are seriously flawed; we reverse,
The property of a foreign state in the United States is presumed immune from attachment unless a specific statutory exception to immunity applies.
The appeals court did not rule on whether the artifacts were subject to seizure. However, the ruling will make it harder for the victims to find other assets which could be considered exempt from the immunity rules.
The case stems from a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem that was carried out by Hamas. Five US citizens injured in the attack won a $71.5 million civil judgment against Iran because it provided material support and training to Hamas.
While US law protects foreign states from being sued in most cases, US assets used for “commercial purposes” can be seized if foreign states are involved in terrorism.
The plaintiffs managed to seize a house in Texas and some small bank accounts before targeting Persian artifacts in 2004 after the University of Chicago announced plans to return a collection that had been on loan from Iran for decades.
The museums argued that the artifacts qualified for immunity from seizure because they are not used for “commercial purposes”. They also warned that the case undermined the ability of museums to protect cultural patrimony and carry out important, apolitical research.
The US Justice Department also got involved, filing a brief arguing that allowing the tablets to be seized sets a dangerous precedent and could threaten US assets abroad. The argument over the artifacts was sidelined in 2006, however, when Iran hired an American lawyer after the lower court judge ruled that Iran’s sovereign immunity would be waived if it did not appear.
The plaintiffs filed a motion seeking a list of all of Iran’s US assets and Iran appealed the lower court’s ruling that it must comply.
Among the artifacts were an invaluable collection of 2,500-year-old clay tablets bearing ancient cuneiform script which have in the care of the University of Chicago since the 1930s.
More astonishing, the plaintiffs also sought to seize a collection of artifacts at the Field Museum which were purchased in 1945 from German archeologist Ernst Herzfeld. Iran does not claim ownership of the collection, but the victims have argued that they do in fact belong to Iran because Herzfeld stole them and smuggled them out of the country!