U.S. victims of a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem who blamed Iran for the blasts and later obtained a $71.5 million judgment against that nation can’t claim Persian antiquities at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History, a federal judge ruled.
The attack in September 1997 killed five people and wounded 200 others. Nine Americans sued Iran, alleging it provided support for Hamas, the Palestinian group held responsible for the triple suicide bombing.
When Iran didn’t contest the 2003 judgment, the victims sought to collect by pursuing its assets in the U.S, targeting artifacts including 2,500-year-old clay tablets mainly found on the site of the ancient Persian city of Persepolis and now at the university and the natural history museum in Chicago.
Those institutions and Iran, which joined the Chicago federal court proceedings in 2006, opposed the seizure, claiming the items were protected under the law. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman ruled yesterday the antiquities were legally beyond the victims’ reach.
“The court recognizes the tragic circumstances that gave rise to the instant action, but finds that the law cited by plaintiffs does not offer the remedy they seek,” the judge said.
Attorney David Strachman, who represented lead plaintiff Jenny Rubin, her mother and the other seven, said today in a phone interview that his clients were “very disappointed” with Gettleman’s decision and blamed the U.S. State Department for arguing against the seizure.
“The State Department has repeatedly come to the rescue to shield Iran from the victims’ attempts to execute their judgment,” said Strachman, an attorney with the Providence, Rhode Island, law firm of McIntyre, Tate LLP.
Some of the tablets were protected from creditors by the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the government argued in court papers last month.
Including punitive damages, the default judgment his clients hold, obtained in a federal court in Washington, is worth more than $400 million, Strachman said.
“We are going to continue to pursue Iran wherever we can,” he said.
Some of the artifacts sought, known as the Persepolis and Chogha Mish collections, belong to the National Museum of Iran and are on loan to the University of Chicago for “scholarly study,” according to the court’s ruling.
While most of the Chogha Mish items were returned during the 1970s, Iran filed a claim for return of the remainder in 1983.
That issue was unresolved when the bombing victims began their collection proceeding in Chicago, the judge said. While the university and the natural history museum claim ownership of the remainder of the sought-after artifacts, the claimants contend they were illegally removed from Iran and still belong to that country.
Jeffrey Lamken, an attorney with MoloLamken LLP in Washington who represented Iran in the proceedings, didn’t immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment on the ruling.
Gil Stein, Director of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute called those Persian artifacts in its possession, “among the region’s most important historical documents.”
“We welcome the court’s ruling and will continue our efforts to preserve and protect this cultural heritage,” Stein said today in an e-mailed statement.
Susan Benton, an attorney for the Field Museum, said in a phone interview that her client is pleased with the ruling. She called it well written and predicted it would withstand review if the plaintiffs appeal.
According to the university’s Oriental Institute website, the tablets -- some inscribed in ancient Aramaic -- were produced about 500 B.C. Tens of thousands of tablets and fragments were discovered in rooms near a fortification wall there by archaeologists in 1933.
“Individually, the documents are mere records of storage and outlays of food, but as a whole, the Persepolis Fortification Archive shows a broader spectrum of Achaemenid Iranian society than any other source, from the lowliest workers to the king’s own family,” according to the website.
The case is Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 03-cv-09370, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).